Cluj-Napoca is Romania's second city, but for the past few years it has been the country's footballing capital. CFR 1907 Cluj have won three of the past five Liga I titles and are this season bidding to advance to the UEFA Champions League knockout stages for the first time in three attempts. Yet it is not only in the men's game that they are leading the way.
On Wednesday CFF Olimpia Cluj will become the first Romanian team to grace the last 16 of the UEFA Women's Champions League, travelling to Italy for a meeting with ASD Torres CF. It is some achievement, all the more so because two years ago Olimpia did not exist.
Mirel Albon, a former referee and UEFA Pro licence holder, was behind their emergence – and to a large extent the emergence of women's football in Romania as a whole. He oversaw seven successive titles at CFF Clujana between 2002/03 and 2008/09 before helping found Olimpia, taking a number of his former charges with him. They have swept all before them, winning back-to-back league and cup doubles: now they covet European success.
Olimpia enjoyed some last season, advancing to the last 32 before eventual winners Olympique Lyonnais barred their path. An away-goals victory over experienced SV Neulengbach saw them past that stage this time and they are not done yet. "Torres are favourites," said Albon. "They have experience at this level, while we have several under-19 players in our starting XI. We achieved a miracle just by getting here, not that we will give up – on the contrary."
The players are a tight-knit bunch, a cohesion strengthened by the fact that many live side by side on campus at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca. It is not a luxurious existence, and the rented team bus is known to break down, but investment has been rising in line with Olimpia's success, more than doubling since they were founded.
This remains, at heart, a local project: the council is financing the trip to Italy, while the owner of the Cluj Arena, venue for the second leg on 8 November, is offering the stadium free of charge. Yet there is a broader upsurge in Romanian women's football, with the national team finishing a creditable third in UEFA Women's EURO 2013 qualifying (just four points behind Spain) and Romania making their bow at the UEFA European Women's U19 Championship this summer.
Albon is the thread that runs through all this, combining his Olimpia role with his job as assistant to Maria Delicoiu with the senior side and as coach of the national U19 and U17 women's teams. He seems to thrive in adversity and with underdogs Olimpia shorn of key left-back Christine Manie, on international duty with Cameroon, for the meeting with Torres he has that.
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