Raised in a poor Roma family, Banel Nicolita has struck gold in the UEFA Cup, helping FC Steaua Bucuresti to a semi-final meeting with Middlesbrough FC.
Nicknamed 'The Golden Boy', the 21-year-old is one of the stars of Steaua's UEFA Cup campaign, scoring the priceless away goal in the quarter-final derby victory against AFC Rapid Bucuresti that catapulted Cosmin Olaroiu's side into the last four. A hard worker and titan of fair play, he is a model professional on the pitch and a model son off it, sending much of his earnings back to his family in small-town Faurei and doing his best to help his brothers find work in Bucharest.
Football was Nicolita's way out of poverty. He has learned to grab his chances with both hands ever since he and a sibling were almost lynched by angry spectators who caught them stealing apples from a garden following a game involving his local side. That team, FC Unirea Faurei, gave Nicolita his first paying job, and he remembers spending the first €9 he earned on a pair of training shoes. What money he had left he gave to his mother, who brought up the midfielder and his four brothers and sisters alone. "I was tempted to buy other stuff, too, but I desperately needed trainers," he said.
At 16, second division FC Dacia Unirea Braila spotted Nicolita's talent, and he was soon on a collision course with the big time, making his debut for Romania's Under-21s in August 2003 before earning a move to Divizia A side FCU Politehnica Timisoara in summer 2004. Money continued to be an issue for Nicolita. He turned up for his first training session at his new club by train and barely had anything suitable to wear.
However, things were to become much easier six months later when he was brought to Steaua for a fee of €100,000. "It was the greatest experience and the biggest opportunity of my life," Nicolita said. "It changed everything." It did not change his outlook on life, however, as he continues to demonstrate the hard-running and clean-living attributes which have contributed to his rise to stardom.
He reached another career high on 12 November last year when he debuted for the senior national team, but things have not always been easy for Nicolita, whose Roma origins have made him a target for racist abuse from the stands. Nicolita is doing his bit to combat the problem in Romanian football, fronting Steaua's anti-racist initiatives and making a public appeal to fans from both sides on the eve of the UEFA Cup derby in Bucharest. A player whose humility commands respect, his pleas did not go unnoticed.
Now his focus is on impressing on the pitch as he looks to use his speed and tenacity to unhinge Middlesbrough, starting with the home leg on Thursday week. For Steaua and Nicolita's huge contingent of supporters back in Faurei, the youngster is proving that with the right combination of skill and determination, anything is possible.