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May 6, 2008

Romania: Back to the future

The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Romanian football is Gheorghe Hagi. The feisty playmaker was the talisman for the country's bygone golden era, which culminated in a quarter-final appearance at World Cup 1994, and still casts a shadow over the Tricolorii.

The Hagi-inspired period of relative success continued through World Cup 1998, when the Romanians beat England to reach the last 16 of the tournament and into Euro 2000 - the build up to which had been somewhat fractious - and ended in the quarter-finals against Italy.

Hagi's influence continued as manager in 2001, once his prolonged playing career finished, but after failing to qualify for World Cup 2002 the legend was axed and Romania endured further six years of a fallow spell.

Now Romania's team are fighting to write a new chapter in their history. They have a new idol to pin their hopes on in the shape of Fiorentina striker Adrian Mutu, whose goals helped fire them to Euro 2008, and have reinstalled a manager who brought about the country's most recent success.

On the way to Austria and Switzerland, Victor Piturca's team smashed in 26 goals as they topped a qualification group that included the Netherlands and Bulgaria, but little else of note, and moved up to 12th in FIFA's ranking list.

Piturca's first spell was equally triumphant as he guided Romania to Euro 2000 with an undefeated record in qualifying but a public argument with Hagi and other senior players saw him sacked before a ball was kicked in the Low Countries of Belgium and Holland.

The 51-year-old began his involvement with the national team in 1996 as coach of the Under 21 side and presided over Romania's most successful period at that level. This experience helped develop Piturca's belief in the ability of young players and proved to be a key factor as he freshened up a national team that had become stale and flawed.

Piturca is not unlike Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in his fierce loyalty to his protégés and this partisan support has sometimes proved problematic. He resigned from Steaua Bucharest, where he was also a prolific striker in his days as a player, in 2004 after becoming embroiled in an argument with chairman Gigi Becali over a player.

But Steau's loss became Romania's gain. Upon succeeding Anghel Iordanescu in 2005 Piturca missed out on the 2006 World Cup in Germany after trailing the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in qualifying but made amends by securing a place at Euro 2008 with two games to spare.

Although Piturca insists his fluid, attacking side 'don't depend upon one player' it is hard to over look the importance of Mutu, who has clearly been given a chance to shine and reclaim his tarnished crown as Romania's top marksman.

The 29-year-old striker shot to fame at Serie A club Parma but following a €22.4million transfer to Chelsea in 2003, which made him the most expensive Romanian football player at the time, trouble ensued. Mutu scored 10 goals in 30 starts during a difficult stint in London that included a dispute with the club's new manager Jose Mourinho and ultimately came to a messy end with a failed drugs test for cocaine.

The shamed striker began his rehabilitation under Fabio Capello at Juventus and although deployed in midfield Mutu credited Capello with saving his career.

The Romanian rediscovered his shooting boots following a switch to Serie A rivals Fiorentina in July 2006 where Mutu was reunited with his former manager at Parma, Cesare Prandelli.

In his first campaign Mutu scored 16 goals in 33 games, along with 16 assists, as he was named player of the season for 2006/07. This term the striker has notched the highest tally of his top-flight career with 23-goals in 35-matches [at time of writing].

With Romania Mutu's partnership with Ciprian Marica produced eleven goals in qualifying thanks to the duo's complimentary styles. Mutu's raids from the left combined with an excellent ability from freekicks and deadballs has even drawn comparisons with the legendary Hagi.

Mutu, along with goalkeeper Bodgan Lobont, full-back Cosmin Contra and captain Cristian Chivu, provide the framework around which Romania construct their ever-changing and versatile team. Piturca used 39 players in qualifying and the tinkering tactician will have to use all his know-how in Switzerland and Austria with his team drawn in the 'group of death'.

Every tournament has a 'group of death' and this one could be considered a real tough guy amongst its peers: Italy, France and the Netherlands will battle it out for the top two places with Romania.

All three of their opposition are ranked amongst the favourites to win the entire tournament with the bookies and the Tricolorii are tipped to finish bottom of the group. Italy and France contested the last World Cup final and all three teams are ranked in FIFA's top ten in the world.

It is a tough ask to progress from Group C but Romania enjoyed success against the Netherlands in qualifying and if they can pinch points off France or Italy then Mutu, Piturca and Co. can really become the new heroes of Romania.


• If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.

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