Just Like Paradise (Football In Heaven 2017)

Well isn’t that just typical you wait ages for someone to organise a groundhop in Romania and then two come along within a few weeks of each other. This one was to be in the stunning Bucovina region in the north east of the country close to the borders of the Ukraine to the north and Moldova to the east. The event was publicised as “Football In Heaven”.

Organising this adventure into the Carpathian mountains and sharing with us his stunning home province was Emanuel Rosu, World Soccer’s Romanian correspondent (@Emishor on Twitter). Emi had combined with the regions Football Association president, Ciprian Anton, to open up the region to groundhoppers. Very kindly this extended to providing a minibus free of charge for the weekend and Emi, Ciprian and the bus were duly waiting to collect 11 hoppers at a slightly chilly Suceava airport, early on the Friday afternoon. We were also joined by local journalist Chidoveţ Dănuţ and film maker Daniel Vatamanu.

We arrived a little late at the Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei home of fifth tier Viitorul Adâncata, but when you have “El Presidente” of the local FA on board your bus the game waits for you and duly kicked off some 25 minutes late! Now ok this wasn’t much of a ground, a few benches to the right hand side and a cabbage patch of a pitch but we witnessed a decent 90 minutes which saw the hosts win 4-2 in an entertaining encounter with local rivals Voinţa Zvoriştea.

Now what happened after the game, as darkness enveloped the ground rapidly, is the sort of heart warming thing you find on these trips to remote and far flung places. Behind one goal was a raised covered platform and this was covered with trestle tables laden with food. A woman laboured over hot pots and pans to produce some delicious sarmale (pork, rice and cabbage parcels), platters of cold meats, bread and drink (including whiskey and brandy) are provided free of charge for everyone in attendance. It wasn’t a one off for the president and some strange foreign guests either, it’s done at every home game, such is the milk of human kindness at a small village club like Adâncata.

Friday October 27th 2017 – Romania Liga V

AS Viitorul Adâncata 4 (Bilţ 15, Ujeniuc 19, Munteanu og 45, Atomei 49)

Voinţa Zvoriştea 2 (Munteanu 20, Bejinariu pen 90)

Att:107 (at Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei)

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After a pretty decent breakfast at the Hotel Continental in Suceava, we ambled down to the Stadionul Areni home of second division Foresta Suceava Friday for an 11am kick off against UTA Arad . The visitors had endured a hellish nine hour 350 mile journey from western Romania to fulfil this fixture. Tickets costing 10 Romanian Lei (£1.90) were purchased from kiosks outside the ground. The ground is a typical 1960’s concrete and breeze block affair with more recent touches of an electronic scoreboard and some plastic seating being the only concessions to modernity. Someone however has taken the time and trouble to liberally paint the concrete in the clubs’ colours of yellow and green the result is a fine looking venue. Foresta have been battling hard with financial woes of late a desperately need a win. The hosts duly go in front of around 700 spectators before UTA fire a double quick salvo before halftime, the second a quite monumental header from the centre back. Foresta work hard in the second half and manage to find an equaliser and it looks like a share of the spoils until UTA, cruelly, score again with virtually the last kick of the match.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga II (11am kick off)

Foresta Suceava 2 (Renquin 29, Acolatse 84)
UTA Arad 3 (Hlistei 35, Ciucă 37, Păcurar 90)

Att:678 (at Stadionul Areni) Admission 10 Lei (£1.90)

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The bus then whisks us up into the foothills of the Carpathians as we head for a fourth tier match between Victoria Vatra Moldoviței and Foresta’s reserve team. Well what can you say about this ground? Set in a hollow surrounded by tall forest where bear sightings are not uncommon. Behind one goal there are stunning mountain vistas. The pitch is noticeably wet and had standing water on the dressing room side. Of course this not being England, there is no doubt the game will take place and a small crowd gathers in the spectator accommodation. This consists of a long row of bench seating at the top of the bank the seating is just inside the crash barrier of the D17 highway. Cars whizz by and lorries trundle by some slowing down for a sneaky look at the game. It gives you a great vantage point for the game but this is a seriously dangerous place to be a spectator! If the location isn’t memorable enough about fifteen minutes into the game a pick up truck screeches into the small clearing on the other side of the road and a bearded man with leathery skin and welly boots leaps out and marches down the road banging an enormous drum. He certainly livens up what is a poor quality encounter which went the way of the hosts with a solitary goal in the second half.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga IV (4pm kick off)

Victoria Vatra Moldoviței 1 (Pelinar 59)
ACS Foresta Suceava II 0

Att:63

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Overnighting in the mountain town of Vatra Dornei, we arrive at the ground of fifth division Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor in rain and morning temperatures of -2 but the welcome is warm and a buffet of food and some scarily strong firewater fortify us for the trek to the stand. It’s an excellent stand for the level and was built two years ago. Vânătorul are top of the league and race into a two goal against Sporting Poieni Solca. There is a flurry of late goals and the result of 3-2 suggests it was closer than it actually was.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga V (11am kick off)

Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor 3 (Clanetariu 18,30, Iosub 80)
Sporting Poieni Solca 2 (Hamcescu 70, Martolea 85)

Att:76 (at Stadionul Dorna Candrenilor)

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Everyone races back to the bus to warm up and we head back down the mountains to Pojorâta. The local side, Bucovina Pojorita have suffered a couple of bankruptcies in recent seasons and are now in the fourth tier. The main stand sits at the foot of a contoured hill dotted with shepherd’s huts, heavy forestation sweeps up almost as high as the eye can trace. It really is like watching a football match on a “Lord of the Rings” film set. To heighten the state of frenzy of the hoppers further the club have also produced a programme albeit a modest four pager. The hosts win at a canter by two goals to nil.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga IV (3pm kick off)

ACS Bucovina Pojorita 2 (Tomco 23, Timpau 71)
ACS Şomuzul Preuteşti 0

Att:87 (at Stadionul Pojorita)

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Our hosts were magnificent and as for the scenery, well sometimes words just fail to come out when you try to speak. There is already talk of a “Football In Heaven 2” next year, do yourself a favour and move heaven and earth to get yourself on it, you won’t regret it.

Some years ago an ageing long haired American rocker sang “This could be just like living in paradise” spending a few days in this astonishing place he could well have been talking about beautiful Bucovina! The second line of that chorus certainly hit home waiting in the departure lounge as David Lee Roth sings “and I don’t want to go home”.

A much expanded version of this article will appear in a future edition of “Football Weekends” magazine.

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Triumph and Tragedy (Romanian Groundhop 2016)

So after much hard work and promotion by organiser Andrei Otineanu, an ensemble of groundhoppers (11 English, 1 Scottish, 1 German and 1 Dane) flew into Bucharest from all points to gather for this much anticipated event.

After careful planning by our host, the itinerary was to take in seven matches over Friday to Sunday with a decent mix of three top flight games and four lower level matches. Well that was the plan but events would see the schedule torn up and thrown in the bin!

We gathered excitedly at the Ibis hotel adjacent to the preposterously enormous Palatul Parlamentului building. Our welcome packs of English language programmes and pin badges were handed out as we headed of to the first of two Friday evening games.

AS Olimpic Bucharest play at the Energoutilaj Ground in Drumul Bercenarului and currently play in the Fifth League (Bucharest). The ground is located near to Gara Progresul in the southern suburbs of the city. The modest ground lies in the shadow of the huge Statie de Betoane cement factory. The eye-catching stand is the on the right as you enter and is a decent size if a little difficult to ascend into! The pitch is noticeably poor, rutted and grassless in places and patches of mushrooms proliferate on the surface.

As an amateur ground it has everything and we witness a surprisingly skilful game given the awful playing surface. The visitors were 3-2 ahead when, having used all their substitutes at half time, three outfield players had to leave the game with various injuries leaving them reduced to just eight players. Weight of numbers told and Olimpic took full advantage scoring two late goals to seal the victory.

Friday May 6th 2016, 17.00 pm – Bucharest 5th League

AS Olimpic Bucharest 4 (Buscó 40, Cristeo 56, Mihacoche 82, Calin 84)
Benfica Noua Generatie 3 (Smarande 26, 63, Stoianis 54)

Att: 44 (at Energoutilaj Ground)

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After a hasty but excellent kebab from Calif, it is time for the second game of the evening and it’s the 20.30pm kick off for the top division play-off match between FC Dinamo and FC Viitorul Constanta. The match resulted in the tragic death of Dinamo midfielder Patrick Ekeng from a cardiac arrest, more of which can be read here: https://peterrmiles.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/when-football-cries-again-fc-dinamo-bucharest/

The morning saw the party gather in the reception of the hotel as we desperately waited for news of the fate of the weekend’s planned matches. A distraught Andrei continuously punched refresh on his phone internet browser as the very real prospect of a blanket cancellation of all matches loomed. Plans were hatched to, if necessary, dash over the border with Bulgaria to potentially take in matches in the border towns of Ruse and Svishtov. However, the consensus, in the absence of any news, was to head over to the National Stadium for some photos while a decision was made. En route the news came through that the National Leagues matches were cancelled as a mark of respect which meant we would not be visiting Concordia Chiajna and FC Voluntari. A great shame but the good news was that the lower leagues were allowed to make their own decision on cancellations and thankfully the Bucharest FA agreed games should proceed but with a minutes silence as a mark of respect to the fallen player.

While we were not allowed access to the National Stadium despite an open gate we enjoyed catching half an hour or so of a youth team match on the quirky Electroaparataj Ground between CS6 and Automatica.

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We then had time to look at the photogenic stepped street of Strada Xenofon before heading to the first match of the day at Progresul.

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Progresul Bucharest were formed in 1944 as BNR Bucharest a team from the banking industry. This gives rise to one of their nicknames of the “Bankers” but I have to say I prefer “Cavalerii frunzei de platan” which translates as “The Knights of the Sycamore Leaf”! Their history is steeped in success including 32 seasons of top flight football. However in 2009 it all came crashing down as the club went into financial meltdown and were evicted from their Cotroceni Stadium home due to unpaid rent. Worse was to follow as they were forcibly relegated to the fourth level by the Romanian FA.

Normally the club play at spartan Viitorul Ground in the shadow of the National Stadium but as May 10th marks the club formation date they have hired the superior Electromagnetica Ground normally used by the reserve side of Rapid Bucharest. It is a quite magnificent venue with a stylish concrete stand painted in a dusty pink colour. There is an enormous and blue wooden scoreboard, erected in 1939, in one corner, and adjacent to this the venue has its own chicken coop. Well why wouldn’t it! Since their enforced demotion Progresul have become something of hipster club and attract a modest band of ultras who back the team for the whole game and periodically release blue smoke bombs and flares. It’s a great atmosphere for such a modest level and the home team do their bit by easing to a comfortable 2-0 success against AS Termo.

Saturday May 7th 2016, 13.00 pm – Bucharest 4th League

FC Progresul 2 (Sidek pen 45, Nias 61)
AS Termo 0

Att: 132 (at Electromagnetica Ground)

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A hearty late lunch of chicken soup and mititei was enjoyed with some tasty unfiltered local brews at the excellent Nenea Iancu restaurant in Strada Covaci.

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The next stop is at Stadionul Biruinta, home of Venus Bucharest, a 2014 reformation of a famous name in Romanian football. The original club we formed in 1914 and were known as Negrii (The Blacks) because of their distinctive all black kit which featured a white eight pointed star as a badge. Venus were the most successful club in Romania winning eight championships before being dissolved by the Communist government in 1949. They played at the legendary Venus Stadium between 1931 and the clubs dissolution. The stadium was demolished in 1953. A bunch of enthusiasts wanted to bring football back to the district of Venus and the only pitch in the area was the former training ground of Juventus Bucharest. This was spruced up with a new clubhouse which is now festooned with a myriad of scarves and pennants from clubs across the world. The players change in a small building in the far corner of the ground adjacent to an indoor tennis centre. The Biruinta ground has three metal bleacher style stands on one side which unfortunately have no roofs.

The visitors for this Fourth League encounter rejoice in the name ACS Lucky Sport Management, but there it nothing fortunate about their victory as they easily dismantle the hosts on another very suspect pitch.

Saturday May 7th 2016, 18.00 pm – Bucharest 4th League

FC Venus Bucharest 0
ACS Lucky Sports Management 3 (Gheorghe 21, Militaru pen 37, C.Achim 60)

Att: 38 (at Stadionul Biruinta)

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Our evening meal is at a traditional Romanian eatery of Pub Horezu in Bulevardul Pache Protopopescu. The food is just superb, especially the creamy doughnut dessert.

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Sunday has been reduced to just the 17.30pm match at ASF Fratia so there is plenty of free time in the morning and I opt to wander the streets of the old town area with Stephen and Andrew.

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Then the whole group gathers for a quick visit to the incredible Giulest-Valentin Stanescu Stadium, home of Rapid Bucharest.

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Nenea Iancu was the venue for lunch once again before we headed to Fratia.

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Ah Fratia, what can you say about this place? Located behind a disused factory the ground is epically rudimentary. It can really only be accessed by walking across a field of cabbages for around half a mile! The club are welcoming as any I have ever experienced. The concept of the club was to provide a home for players that could not get a game anywhere else. They are coached by a Congolese man, Aime Lema, and famously have a one armed goalkeeper, Tudorel Mihailescu, a life affirming character whose battle to live out his dream to play football has been featured in the New York Times.

Today is Tudorel’s 50th birthday and the venue is in celebratory mood. Herve Phanzu gives the hosts an early lead against Progresul Spartac but it is a close encounter and victory is not secured until skipper Daniel Sebanescu stabs in a second amid joyous scenes of celebration, so much so he actually injures himself and has to limp off!

The Fratia-Vulcan ground is just amazing, plastic bags and assorted underwear are used for corner flags, a massive scoreboard sits unloved in one corner and a multi coloured bleacher style stand creeks alarmingly under the weight of spectators. If you want to see the real Romania it is encapsulated in this one glorious place.

Sunday May 8th 2016, 17.30 pm – Bucharest 5th League

ASF Fratia 2 (Phanzu 23, Sebanescu 85)
Progesul Spartac 0

Att: 70 (at Fratia-Vulcan Ground)

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Another fabulous meal at Pub Horezu completes the day and as dawn breaks it is time to head off to Otopeni airport for the flight home.

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What an epic weekend organised so well by young Andrei who hopes to base his university thesis on this weekend, be sure to follow the Romanian Groudhopper and #BucharestGH across all forms of social media.