Tales From The Internationalists

Steaua Bucharest vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2013.

There was a moment during the breaking hours of Monday, as I circumnavigated the M25 from the M3 to the M1, when I was lost in thought, already planning my next travel burst. Even though I was headed out for a first-ever visit to Romania for our game with Steaua Bucharest the following evening, here was proof that I am never happier than letting my mind wander and allowing it to flit from city to city, dreaming of possible itineraries, buoyed by the knowledge that another destination will soon be awaiting me. I suppose this is the definition of wanderlust; always wanting to be elsewhere, the constant preoccupation with other lands, other cities, other experiences. If life is a journey, does this mean that I am unhappy with my own journey, since I am forever willing myself to new lands? Who knows? Not me. Especially at 5.30am on a drab Monday morning.

Back to basics; for now, Bucharest was my destination.

I had left home at just after 4am and there was the inevitable text to a few night owls in the US to let them know that I was “On The Road.”

“Jack Kerouacu.”

All of my goods and chattels had been forced rather strenuously into a 42cm x 30cm x 25cm Karrimor ruck-sac. It was the maximum size allowed for an item of hand luggage for my Wizz Air flight from Luton to Bucharest Coandi airport. In truth, my trusty camera and lenses took up around 40% of this space; there was no room for a pullover. I might be freezing in Bucharest, but at least I’d be able to record it all on film.

Stonehenge looked even more spooky than usual as I shot past it on the A303. I dropped into Fleet Services for a coffee. All was quiet. On the M25, I glanced across at Heathrow’s Terminal Five and, with memories of that building being the starting point of a trip to Philadelphia with my dear mother in 2010, came a cavalcade of yearnings to be elsewhere. That my craving for foreign lands has been partially-satiated by the international travels of Chelsea Football Club, of course, is one of the joys of my life. The trip to Bucharest would be my twenty-sixth Chelsea game in mainland Europe .

I reached Luton airport at 6.30am. On the bus from the long term car park to the small terminal building, with me unable to stifle the early-morning yawns, I spotted the first Chelsea fan of the trip (“face familiar, name unknown”) and I knew there would be more as the morning progressed.

It is one of the great annoyances of following Chelsea in European competitions that we always seem to get drawn against teams that we have already met. How is it possible for us to continually meet Porto, Valencia, Barcelona, Schalke, Juventus, Lazio et al? In this year’s CL Group Phase, UEFA had tucked us up even further; not only have we played all three group members before, but we only met Steaua and Basel last spring. Have they never heard of wanderlust, damn it?

At the gate, I noted a few Chelsea fans – FFNU – but then spotted a trio of very familiar faces; Rob, Callum and DJ. Here were three members of the very loyal band of Chelsea supporters who – quite literally – follow Chelsea over land and sea, and Bucharest. Only a couple of friends had travelled out to see us take on Steaua in the Europa League last March – I believe we only took around 200 to 300 – but their comments about the city made me choose Romania over Germany and Switzerland in 2013. Although a German trip is always brilliant, a previous visit to a grim Gelsenkirchen in 2007 easily dissuaded me. Basel? No. Bucharest it was.

The flight lasted around three hours; thankfully I was able to catch up on some sleep. The rest of the trip was spent chatting about various flights, travel options and prices of current trips and of previous escapades following Chelsea. There is no doubt that Chelsea supporters – like those of the other clubs in England who have been blessed with European competition – are masters in the art of winkling out the cheapest route from the UK to any given city in Europe. It seems that certain fans know the schedules of Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizz-Air and others off by heart. Often, routes are quite bizarre.

London to Berlin, then to Madrid.

London Gatwick to Bergamo, then to Bucharest, but returning via another airline via Vienna to London Heathrow.

London to Porto, then train to Lisbon, but back via a train to Faro then home.

All to save £20 here and £20 there.

Top marks to everyone. Top marks to the Chelsea Internationalists, the masters of budget air travel. In fact, among the talk of flight combinations and ridiculous routes, there is almost a hidden agenda to come up with the most tortuous itinerary of all, but only if a cash saving is to be had.

“Yeah, I travelled out on a flight to Paris for only £20, but I knew that there was a budget coach going to Milan every second Tuesday in the month for just £5. I hopped on that. From Milan, I caught a train to Como using my Italian mate’s rail season ticket and then cycled, like James Coburn in “The Great Escape,” over the border into Switzerland. Job done, son.”

The rumours were true; it was raining in Bucharest as our flight landed at 1.30pm. The airport looked bleak; tired concrete buildings and associated fittings. Rob and I managed to get ourselves on a bus into the city for a ridiculously cheap price. Patiently waiting on the bus, just arrived from Heathrow on a Tarom flight, were Alan, Gary, Tom and a few other familiar Chelsea fanatics. Good stuff. The bus ride in to the city reminded me of the journey into Moscow in 2008; rain beating down on the windows, slow-moving traffic, but vast warehouses, garages and superstores lining the road.

Carrefour, Ikea, Porsche, BMW, Harley Davidson.

We passed the Romanian version of the Arc de Triomph and continued along the main artery into the city. We alighted at the end of the line at Piata Unirii, the large central square, surrounded by large shops to one side, the hint of the old town to another, and the vast open space of the east-west Bulevardi Unirii to the south. It was teeming with rain. Tom, Alan and Gary made their way to their hotel in the old town, while I headed off in another direction, with my pronunciation of a street name drawing nothing but consternation from a local policeman.

I reached my hotel on Strada Mantuleasa at 3.30pm. On the twenty minute walk from Piata Unirii, the rain hadn’t stopped. It was time to have a shower, dry my clothes and take a power nap. It was going to be a long night ahead.

At 7pm, I met up with a work acquaintance, Elena, who I have been communicating with on email and the occasional phone call, for the past seven years. She works, just a few miles to the north, right next to the Dinamo Bucharest stadium in fact, for an office furniture company. We hopped next door in to the adjoining restaurant and spent an hour or so chatting about work, Bucharest, her personal family history under the old communist regime, and the particular circumstances that brought me to her home city on an autumnal day in 2013. It was, of course, fascinating to hear her speak of the old regime and, I am ashamed to say, made me realise how little I knew – or know now, even – of the countries in the former Eastern bloc and how they all existed before the walls came tumbling down, quite literally, in the late ‘eighties. Elena spoke of her parents who both worked at a factory making engines. I made the stupid mistake of asking the name of the company. Of course, there was no company; her parents were working for the state. In that exact moment, my mind did cartwheels attempting to understand what it must have been like in the old regime where poor productivity was hidden, where objectives and goals were masked in a cloud of bureaucracy and where the fear – in Romania especially, one of the most terrifying communist states – of being investigated by the state was omnipresent.

In truth, I could only imagine. And I was sad that I would just be brushing the surface of Bucharest on this trip. There was a long day ahead on the Tuesday, but – if the rain continued to fall – I wondered how much of the city I would actually manage to see.

At 8.15pm, Elena kindly deposited me on the eastern edge of the old town, with the flashing neon of the advertisements in Piata Unirii, a hundred yards to the south. Within a minute, I had stumbled upon Base Camp Bucharest 2013.

The “Old City” bar had been used by the Chelsea expeditionary force during the visit in 2012-2013. A return visit in 2013-2014 was a necessity. The owner, Cristian, had again decorated his bar with Chelsea flags and a few of his female friends were wearing blue Chelsea T-shirts. The girls weren’t working behind the bar; they just welcomed us in at the front door and posed for photographs.

Lovely jubbly.

Just inside the door, I soon stumbled into a bevy of good friends; the ever-present Alan and Gary, but also Rob, Tom and Pauline, everyone already deep into beer and vodka. They had been enjoying the warm welcome from the bar staff since around 4pm. The night was already rocking.

“Fasten your seatbelts, Chris, my son, this is going to be a good one.”

Within a few seconds, that Chelsea stalwart “The Liquidator” was booming throughout the long, narrow bar, deep in the heart of Bucharest’s old town; a cramped hotchpotch of cobbled streets, lined with bars, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and fast-food stalls.  Outside, the rain was falling and the streets were near-deserted. Inside, it was noisy and the songs continued.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life, ‘cos it’s the one you’ll never know.”

There was talk of a myriad number of topics, but laughter was the one constant. The music pounded. At the opposite end of the bar, Chelsea fans in their ‘fifties – all FFNU – were stomping.

“We’re going down the pub.”

Tom soon acquired a navy blue cap from one of the local constabulary and flitted from friend to friend with the look of someone who was enjoying a second – or third or fourth – childhood. His face was a picture. The songs, from my youth, were continuing and we were shouting out the lyrics.

“Echo Beach, far away in time, Echo Beach far away in time.”

Goggles, one of the Fulham OB especially assigned to keep an eye on the Chelsea supporters on our European adventures, was in the bar, chatting to a few faces. What a crazy life for the Chelsea Internationalists.

“It’s just gone noon, half-past monsoon on the banks of the River Nile.”

My good mate Orlin – San Francisco via Sofia – soon arrived with three mates with ridiculously unpronounceable names and joined in the fun. In March, our support in Bucharest was bolstered by Chelsea fans from Sofia and Varna. Orlin told me that around sixty Chelsea fans from his home town of Sofia would be in town for Tuesday’s game.

“When I’m with you baby, I go out of my head.”

Out of nowhere, two Chelsea fans decided to do a streak through the bar.

“I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist.”

As the night rolled on, the local Ciuc beer (7 lei for a pint or around £1.30) gave way to vodka and Red Bull.

“Poor old Johnny Ray.”

The crowds grew and the singing increased.

“London calling to the faraway towns.”

Then, Alan and I camping it up good and proper.

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”

It was 1985 all over again. Rob, Gary and Alan then, predictably, hit the amaretto.

The crowds eventually began to drift away; maybe at 2.30am, maybe at 3am. Then a sudden influx of a few late guests and an impromptu song contest involving some very rare Chelsea songs. At around 3.45am, I teetered out of the bar, the rain still falling, and set off on a walk back to my hotel.

“Get to the main square, Chris, and then it’ll be easy.”

Oh boy.

After walking for around twenty minutes or so, I remember being tempted by an all-night petrol station on the opposite side of the road. My receipt for a sausage strudel indicates it was 4.12am. On exiting, my powers of self-navigation had evidently been upturned. I had no idea where I was and no idea of how I had approached the filling station. I was lost. In Bucharest. I yelled out a shriek of pain. I continued walking. The rain got worse. Passing traffic splashed rain water from the kerbside puddles onto my already soaked jeans. My socks were saturated. I shouted again.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.”

At a relatively busy road junction by a garage, I flagged down a yellow cab. I hopped inside. I mentioned the name of my hotel, but the cab driver looked befuddled. I tried to remember the name of the street. My mind was blank. There was a moment of silence. He looked at me. I looked at him. He spoke no English. I spoke no Romanian. This was ridiculous. I exited the cab and slammed the door behind me. For around twenty minutes, I sheltered in a bus shelter. I couldn’t have been wetter if someone had thrown me into a swimming pool. At last another cab; let’s try again. Thankfully, this cabbie – a far friendlier bloke – was equipped with GPS and the back-up of a tablet…he soon pumped in my hotel name. Thankfully, it registered.

“Strada Mantuleasa?”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

What relief.

The cab ride was just 20 lei – around £4 – so I couldn’t have been too far from the hotel; maybe a mile or so. At around 5.30am, I entered the foyer of the hotel; it had been an eventful – for the want of a better word – end to the night.

I slept like a baby, not waking until 11.45am. Miraculously, the ten beers and five vodkas (again the bar receipts tell a story) from the previous night had no effect. I had no hangover, nor the merest hint of one. It was the Miracle of Mantuleasa Street. I showered, checked out and…then what?

It was just after midday. The game was almost ten hours away. Despite no hangover, boy was I tired. Despite the lure of heading back to the Old City bar, I resisted. I wanted to see, at least, a little of the city. I walked a few blocks in search of a coffee house in which to shelter from the rain which was still falling. Not only is Bucharest devoid of bars, except in the old town, it is also deficient in cafes and restaurants. I walked along uneven pavements, with flagstones at every angle possible, avoiding further puddles (there are a lot of puddles in Bucharest) and was dismayed to witness only fast food outlets with no room to sit inside; just a serving counter onto the pavement.

“Bloody hell.”

From 2pm to 3.30pm, I sheltered in a “Subway.” The wind was howling outside. The trees which lined the street were being blown to the left and to the right. The rain – God, the rain – still fell. In truth, it reminded me of travels in distant cities in my youth when I had time to kill, little money, and when I waited for the next train connection – to Verona, to Stuttgart, to Genoa – in a local café and observed the locals. It was OK.

Then, typical me. I emptied the chest pocket of my still wet jacket; although it was rather sodden, there was the Bucharest city map that I had deposited before I set off the previous evening.

Oh boy.

If only I had remembered; my lonely traipsing of the streets of Bucharest would have not happened.

I growled.

I set off to take a few photographs of the Palace of the Parliament, the massive edifice constructed under the guidelines of the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the ‘eighties. The building is huge. I had to take some photographs of it while in Bucharest, if nothing else. Ceausescu, who was shot during the uprising in 1989, never lived to see it finally completed. It remains the largest civilian building in the World. At Piata Unirii, there was a feeling of complete bleakness. The wide boulevard to my left and to my right, and the wide open void of the square, just made me contemplate the absolute greyness of life in the old regime. I took a few atmospheric wide angle shots with my camera as the rain fell and cars flew past. Away to my left, the Palace beckoned me; I walked slowly towards it, the rain still falling. Although Bucharest was known as Little Paris in the inter-war years, with wide streets and pleasing architecture, it was clear to me that this was not one of Eastern Europe’s jewels. This was not Budapest, nor Prague, nor Krakow, each with charismatic architectural treasures and beauties. This was Bucharest, tarnished with the brush of communism and struggling to acclimatise to a new world.  I had noted a few ornate churches, but the city centre had shown little to charm me.

At the western end of Bulevardi Unirii stood the imposing monument to Ceausescu. Its subtle and delicate light brickwork belied the building’s dark secrets. I pointed my camera, shielding it from the rain, and snapped some photographs. I sheltered on the steps of an adjacent governmental building, under the yellow, red and blue of the Romanian flag and let my imagination run away with me for a few short moments; what secrets could these buildings tell? During the days of the communist bloc, my sole foray behind the iron curtain took place in 1976 when, on a family holiday to Italy, we paid a visit to some impressive caves in the former Yugoslavia. I remember my father informing me at the time that Yugoslavia was probably the most welcoming of communist states. Not so Romania under Ceausescu. A trip to Romania for football thirty years ago would not have been anything like a visit in 2013.

With that sobering thought, I headed back into the old town, where I knew that a warm welcome awaited me. At the bottom of Strada Selari, I sat in The Bankers pub for a while, but the place was empty. As I headed north, past more bars, Chelsea fans were conspicuous by their absence. I wondered just how many fans were in town.

At the top of the cobbled street, the Old City was overflowing with Chelsea fans. As so often happens on foreign trips, this was evidently “the” Chelsea pub. Inside, the place was rammed, and I sat quietly in a corner, happy to watch on as others continued on at the same pace as the previous night. The Bristol boys arrived. Orlin and the Bulgarians were over in the far corner. The five blue-clad Chelsea girls were again happy to pose with photographs. A TV crew were present and Pauline made a couple of appearances. One of the bar girls hopped up on to the bar and did an impromptu dance routine. The owner had clearly done his research; his CD of Chelsea songs even included the rarely heard Cup Final song from 2000 : –

“Now the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea
Til our dying day.
Just look over your shoulder
See the army dressed in blue.
We’ll go where you go.
And fight every fight with you.”

There was talk of buses taking us over to the stadium from 7pm. The game was to be played at the National Arena, a new structure which hosted the 2012 Europa League Final. Steaua – the team of the army in the old regime – have their very own stadium to the west of the city. For big games, they decamp to the larger national stadium. I can remember the stadium’s predecessor which was typically named “August 23 Stadium” from an England game in 1979. I remember the stereotypical shallow banks of terracing, but especially the central platform, or loggia, where dignitaries watched the games. It was like nothing I had seen at a football stadium before or since.

Four buses took the Chelsea fans from the city centre out to the stadium at around 8.15pm. Our bus featured around twenty of the Bulgarian chapter; it was they alone who were singing on the way to the game. Everyone else was quite subdued; I guess we had seen it all before.

I commented to Alan : –

“I hope they are singing good things about us. Or, at least, bad things about Tottenham.”

We were deposited right outside the stadium. With the lights shining from underneath the roof, the new structure certainly looked impressive. Its main feature was the roof itself; hoisted high on supports, adding height to the structure from inside and out. We were, unbelievably, searched an incredible seven times, involving seven different people, on our way in to the stadium.

One – a ticket check.

Two – a full body tap down.

Three – a full body tap down and bag search.

Four – a check of our upper body.

Five – a check of our pockets.

Six – a check of our legs.

Seven – at the turnstile, a full body and bag search once more.

With the rain still falling, we just wanted to get inside the stadium. Although there was no unpleasantness from the police and the security, this was surely being overzealous? I was just glad I was allowed to take my camera inside. We assembled high on the upper tier, a little knot of Chelsea fans in the cavernous stadium.

If we had 200 at the game in March, I’d guess we had 400 at this one. The Bulgarians lead the chanting as the players went through their drills down below. In truth, I was still feeling the effects of my sightseeing; although my jacket was slowly drying out in the cold wind, my socks were still soaking. All around me, fellow fans stood, shuffling from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep warm. The crowd appeared quite sparse. The stadium only looked half-full. In March, Alan had said it was virtually a full house. We couldn’t work it out, although Alan mentioned that the price of tickets for the game in March was half the price of the 90 lei demanded for this one.

The local kick-off time was 9.45pm. The players took to the field, with the tarpaulin of the large roof keeping the night sky out of sight and giving the stadium a strangely surreal feel. The Chelsea players looked smart in the new white / white / blue.

At the northern end, many flags were constantly waved by one group of Steaua ultras in the lower tier. Down below us, another group of ultras were clapping and cheering throughout the game, with capos at the front leading the orchestration. The Bulgarians in our section taunted them. What pleasantries were exchanged is not known.

“Romanian cheese tastes sour and is overated.”

“That’s nothing; Bulgarian cheese tastes like my grandfather’s socks.”

Who knows?

This was clearly a “must win” game after our surprising defeat against Basel. Our early play, in which Andre Schurrle out on the left wing was heavily used, promised that this would be a good night of football. All of our possession was met with a wall of whistling from the home fans. After a few raids, we were all sad to see Fernando Torres replaced by Samuel Eto’o. We were unsure of his injury. A rare Steaua attack was thwarted. We opened the scoring on 19 minutes after another break from Schurrle, who passed to Eto’o. He lost control but Ramires was on hand to stab the ball home. The net bristled and the Chelsea fans cheered in relief rather than an outpouring of elation. Soon after, we sung “Jose Mourinho” and our manager, looking smart himself in trademark coat and scarf, waved back.  Our chances kept coming with the German Schurrle still standing out with his direct runs at his marker. Elsewhere in the midfield, Mata and Oscar kept probing away. Ramires and Lampard, playing deeper, were not afraid to support the forwards. There was little cheering or singing in the away section; the shuffling continued.

Cech saved well down below us, thwarting a cross shot with his left hand.

Just before the break, Mata played in Eto’o. We held our breath as he aimed. His shot was parried by the ‘keeper but the rebound struck the hapless Georgievski.

2-0 at the break. Easy.

During half-time I asked Alan if, during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, he could ever imagine himself seeing Chelsea play in Bucharest twice within six months. He looked wistfully across at home fans in the other half of the stadium and smiled.

Both teams exchanged chances soon into the second-half, but we added a third goal when more diligent work from Schurrle on the left flank was rewarded when his pass found Oscar, who played in an advancing Ramires. His shot was struck hard past the home ‘keeper.

3-0. Cruising.

Juan Mata smacked a ball against the near post. The home fans’ whistling had now subsided. We were well on top. Some Chelsea fans left on the hour; the lure of a warm bar was too much. At the other end, Steaua’s Tanase struck at goal; Cech back peddled and flung his hand up to push the ball over the bar. We watched on, horrified, as he crashed into his left post. It looked quite horrific. He stayed down. After a few minutes of concern, he rose to his feet and we were mighty relieved.

Shots from Schurrle and Eto’o caused the Steaua ‘keeper to save again. In the last minute, substitute Willian was found by Eto’o and he set up Frank Lampard who calmly struck a low shot past a crowd of players in the box. The ball grazed the far post and crept in.

4-0.

More songs for Mourinho. He again waved.

Job most definitely done.

At the end of the game, long after the Chelsea players had applauded us as they had walked off, the home players, although clearly disconsolate, walked slowly right up to within yards of both of their ultra groups at opposite ends of the stadium and applauded them. I thought this was a lovely gesture. Even the Chelsea fans applauded the Steaua team off.

We feared that we would be kept inside for ages after the game, but the wait was not long. In fact, even the rain had stopped once we slowly exited. The buses were waiting for us. With a police escort, we were returned to the city centre. There was a mood of cool relief at the outcome of the game. A Chelsea fan from Abu Dhabi, in Romania especially for the game, chatted to us about his fanaticism for the team. He had been present at the game in Barcelona in 2012 too. His enthusiasm was heartening.

“It’s a religion” he exclaimed.

Chelsea truly is an international club these days; off it as well as on. I had inadvertently bumped into a lad from Sweden during the game too. England, Bulgaria, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates. Our appeal knows no bounds and no geographical boundary.

Truly over land and sea.

As my flight home was to take off at the ungodly hour of 6.15am, there was simply no point in paying for a second night in a hotel. I took a bus back to the airport at 1.30am, past the illuminated Arcul de Triumf, and waited patiently in the terminal building for the return to England.

At least I was dry.

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