“Why did you pick Targu Mures?” I am being asked ever since I moved here. Now I can reply with confidence: “Because we are going to win the Romanian football championship.”
And the local team, ASA Tirgu Mures, was only promoted from second to first division in this season. After a surprise victory against Steaua Bucharest last week, ASA now is at the top position of the league, two points ahead of said Bucharest which has already won the Romanian championship 25 times. A small town club wins against the Romanian Bayern Munich and is close to a sensation with only five matches remaining.
Thus, for the first time in my life I attend a first division football match. The ticket booth opens at 5 p.m. the day before the match. The club announced that 2,500 tickets are still available. The stadium has 8,200 seats. Expecting a huge demand, I am in front of the stadium exactly at 5 p.m. and join the long queue. At the other side of the road, the old stadium is rotting away. The “fan shop” is a small wooden stall, askew and closed. Everything is more personable than at the snooty millionaires’ clubs. “This is like under Ceaușescu” a guy in front of me comments on the length of the queue, in which I spot some sports jackets with the names of former county or district league teams in Germany who have probably gone out of business since.
After 30 minutes it’s my turn. Which seats I want to have? Directly behind the goals, a seat is 5 lei (= 1,14 €) and on the side stands it costs 10 lei (= 2,28 €). For a first division match of the league leader! Incredible.
But there are actually still tickets left the next day. The stadium is not sold out, for which the weather may be responsible. It has been raining the whole day, dark clouds hang above the stadium, with the floodlights which have already been switched on for kick-off at 6:30 p.m. looking like four suns. Some of the spectators wear wellingtons and angler’s jackets. Others carry plastic bags against the rain because umbrellas must be deposited at the entrance gate.
Just before admittance time, the kind of fans show up due to whom I have always been skeptical towards football (not to speak of the customary attitude of intellectuals to look down on ball games). About a dozen young men march towards the stadium in step, waving scarves in the club’s colors above their heads and shouting “Mures, Mures, Mures”. When I see these groups of fans, I cannot but associate it with fascist mass gatherings. The uniforms, the shouting, the idolization, the eager deferral of the individual for the sake of the mass, the glorification of fighting and the denigration of opponents.
But the reader expects a report on a football match, not an essay on political philosophy. So we kick off: the most obvious difference between the two teams is their age. The players of ASA Tirgu Mures could be the fathers of those of FC Viitorul Constanta. On the one side are old men with full beards and some beginnings of paunches, on the other side slim and fast teenagers. ASA plays more of a robust fighting game, not exactly delicate. When Constanta are in possession of the ball, they strive forward like a flash, all the way to the home goal where the boys ultimately flounder. Some of the players of ASA Tirgu Mures are in their late thirties, with the experience and calmness that come with it.
The match goes back and forth, with about the same amount of action in both sides of the pitch. No team is dominating. In the 37th minute, one of Constanta’s players is sent off with a red card, although altogether ASA have been the rougher team. The home team’s numerical advantage does not break Constanta’s will and doesn’t seem to tip the match.
The loud scream of a Constanta player pierces through the rain. He goes to the ground. That sounds like genuine pain. Two players crashed their heads together when they both tried to hit the ball, without any malicious intent. The Constanta player lies on the ground motionless, the ASA man doesn’t care and walks away. I am shocked not because of the roughness of the game, but because of the brutal reactions: The spectators are booing at the injured man lying on the pitch. When the medics run onto the field, the verbal hostilities and sneering shouts become louder even. The medics are being insulted. A human being is injured, but the Mures fans in the stadium display the worst side of humankind. Shocking, and now I am back with my initial concerns about football.
Shortly before halftime, ASA Tirgu Mures scores 1-0, more of a relieving than an encouraging intermediate result. During the break, some of the spectators go home, totally soaked and shivering. In the aisles between the rows of seats, the water runs like in the canals in Venice. After the first half, I can’t really blame anyone for leaving. It was not exactly Premier League level. But those who leave now will kick themselves in 45 minutes for having missed the match of the season.
Because the second half begins with Mures scoring 2-0. “Campioni, campioni” the crowd shouts enthusiastically, as if the championship is already in the bag. But ASA Mures cannot allow any blunder in the next four matches, as long as record-holding champions Bucharest are so closely at ASA’s tail.
Then the 3-0, like a copy of the 2-0. ASA dominates, Constanta has folded. Another 25 minutes to go. To celebrate, I light a cigar, because this result cannot be turned around anymore. And indeed the show continues: 4-0. This half reminds me of the World Cup match between Germany and Brazil. 4-1, a small slip, no one cheers for the goal against ASA. Are there even any fans that came from the Black Sea coast? I don’t notice any. 5-1. ASA Tirgu Mures can now play as if Constanta is no longer on the pitch. 6-1. The scoreboard can hardly keep up, as the goals are scored within minutes of each other.
Final whistle. The highest win of the season. Calls of “campioni, campioni”, but the players are too exhausted to dwell on the grass for a long time. Although the rain has stopped, the spectators quickly empty the stadium. I recognize the joy about a football festival, also a certain pride that the hometown is now known all over the country, but I cannot detect much authentic identification with the team.
Some of the attendees tell me that they are still fans of the team from the 1970s that played in the UEFA Cup three times (and never made it beyond the first round), and that the current team has only been purchased together from Brazil and Senegal. They have a point and such a concept is probably not sustainable. If another club offers more, the men (the word “mercenary” is often used when talking about this) are gone.
The whole thing becomes even more dubious when one learns that the football team is financed by the municipality. In front of the city hall in Targu Mures there is a statue of Romulus and Remus in memory of the Roman heritage, but of “panem et circenses” only the circus remains. Meanwhile, the roads are dotted with potholes, old people starve through the winter on a measly pension, public buildings are in decay and a few thousand citizens of Targu Mures live in quarters which can only be described as slums.
It’s all a matter of priorities.