Friday, October 19, 2007
Back in the Big Time
The Dutch were considered the overwhelming favourites for this group, and they do indeed look on course to qualify comfortably. But it is the Romanian side that has stormed through the qualifying series, to book its place in Austria and Switzerland with two matches to spare.
It was Holland that banished the Romanians from last year's World Cup, beating them at home and away during the qualifiers. Fitting, then, that the crucial result for the Romanians this time around was a dogged home win over the Dutch last Saturday.
I've always had a soft spot for Romania, ever since the first tournament I watched with sufficient interest to gain a lasting impression, the 1994 World Cup. The Romanians were superb in the States (save a surprising loss to the mercurial Swiss), and produced some of the best goals of that event; there was Gheorghe Hagi's stunning long-range strike against Colombia, and one of the best breakaway goals you will ever see in their second-round match against Argentina.
Hagi - one of the finest players of his generation - hung around long enough to help them qualify for the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, and Romania reached the knockout stages in both tournaments. But with his send-off against Italy in the latter one, it seemed an era had come to a close; since then, Romania have failed to qualify for a major championship.
Until now. There are few stars in the team; Christian Chivu, one of the young stars of Euro 2000 as a flying fullback, is now a relative veteran, operating in central defence. Another distinguished survivor of 2000, Adrian Mutu, has never quite settled down at club level, and has perhaps not quite made the most of his very considerable talents. It's good to see both of them back in a major competition.
Congratulations also to the defending champions Greece, who sealed qualification in the most difficult of circumstances, away to their eternal rivals Turkey. Repeating their 2004 triumph would be nothing short of miraculous, but, as always, it's good that the holders are able to defend their title.
In a small way, with two of the most promising players (Chivu and Mutu) from then now main figures and the coach who guided them there last, Romania at Euro 2008 will be continuing on from where they were in 2000 despite the long wait.