Romania's 'Golden Generation' cast a long shadow over the current side, but Victor Piţurcă's men are determined to match that famous team by making it to the nation's first FIFA World Cup since 1998. "For some of us, it's the last chance," said 32-year-old forward Marius Niculae ahead of the play-off with Greece.
A Romania side featuring the likes of Gheorghe Hagi, Gheorghe Popescu, Dan Petrescu, Bogdan Stelea, Dorinel Munteanu and Adrian Ilie reached the last 16 in France in 1998, and their successors would love the chance to emulate that feat – and lay the ghost of a play-off defeat by Slovenia in 2002 qualification (in which Niculae and goalkeeper Bogdan Lobonț figured). "These are the matches of our careers," conceded forward Răzvan Cociș, one of seven survivors of Romania's last major finals, UEFA EURO 2008.
Having resumed command in June 2011, Pițurcă – who previously guided Romania to UEFA EURO 2000 and UEFA EURO 2008 – has some powerful omens in his favour. Greece have yet to beat Romania in six competitive meetings and the date of the first leg in Piraeus, 15 November, has witnessed significant Romanian successes: on that day in 1989, Romania overcame Denmark 3-1 to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, while in 2011, Piţurcă's Romania downed Fernando Santos's Greece 3-1 in a friendly in Altach, Austria.
"Of course, the fact we have beaten them before might be significant going into the two matches, but we are speaking about totally different games," said the 57-year-old Piţurcă, capped 13 times a striker by Romania in the 1980s. "Greece are an extremely strong and pragmatic team, who play in a remarkable way in order to get results, but we have our chances and we will go for it. We have to score at least once in Athens, because if you don't score you cannot win, and without winning you cannot qualify."
For all the good omens, the weeks leading up to the tie have brought a degree of stress for Piţurcă. Midfielder Mihai Pintilii was ruled out after picking up an injury in FC Steaua Bucureşti's UEFA Champions League draw at FC Basel 1893 last week, and on Sunday his captain Vlad Chiricheş injured his nose in Premier League action with Tottenham Hotspur FC. He misses the first leg while goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu's back problems mean Costel Pantilimon or the more experienced Lobonț may deputise.
Whatever the history between the sides, Romania know that UEFA EURO 2004 winners Greece have far more recent experience of major championships – and the pressure they involve. But while Piţurcă's team must battle to live up to past glories, the hunger of a new generation could yet fuel them onwards. "I eat, breathe, sleep and dream this tournament," said SC Bastia's 26-year-old forward Claudiu Keşeru, who made his international debut this year. "Money or bonuses count for nothing. Honestly, I would walk to Brazil."
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