As ever, the refereeing at this World Cup has sparked the ire of fans and teams alike –– countries such as Croatia, Mexico, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay have all in their turn cried foul at refereeing errors. Though the one accusation of match-fixing in the tournament –– centred around Croatia’s 4-0 win over Cameroon –– did not involve the referee, there have been plenty of fans who remain convinced that the officiating was biased against them for whatever reason.

Many of the errors have been forgivable –– such as the two goals Giovani dos Santos had wrongly ruled out for offside in Mexico’s game against Cameroon –– or have been due to referees being overawed by the occasion. Yuichi Nishimura was mistakenly taken in by Fred’s dive in the opening game, but Brazil have themselves missed out on penalties, both rightly (when Marcelo dived against Mexico) and wrongly (the foul on Hulk that Howard Webb missed in the Chile game). Bosnian fans tried to petition FIFA when they saw a picture of New Zealand referee Peter O’Leary laughing with Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama at the final whistle of their win over the Balkan team, a game in which O’Leary had wrongly disallowed an Edin Džeko goal. I’m not sure what conspiracy would be afoot to ensure African sides benefit but it certainly was not working in Nigeria’s favour in their last-16 game versus France, when American referee Mark Geiger’s overly lenient officiating allowed the French to get away with fouling on a regular basis, culminating in a terrible challenge by Blaise Matuidi on Ogenyi Onazi that saw Onazi’s World Cup ended and which Geiger failed to award a red card for. In the absence of Nigeria’s playmaker the momentum switched in favour of the French and they ended up running out 2-0 winners. There seems to be a FIFA directive in place for referees to stave off on the cards (most cards in the tournament have been awarded in the second half of games) and the most notorious result of that was the Brazil-Colombia game last Friday where Brazil’s ugly cynicism effectively snuffed out James Rodríguez and contributed to an abrasive game where Camilo Zuñiga fouled Neymar and put him out of the tournament.

There have been plenty of cases of bent referees over the decades, though few seem to have been found out in World Cups. Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorean who refereed Italy’s defeat to hosts South Korea in 2002 certainly was later proven to be bent but there is little evidence to say he unduly influenced the result of a game that Italy had ample opportunity to win on their own steam. By and large though, football fans, however much they might whine, put a lot of faith in the man in the middle. The New York Times, upon discovering the concept of stoppage time following the United States’ late concession to Portugal, speculated that the referee’s having the sole responsibility for time-keeping left worrying scope for corruption, but people that know the game see nothing wrong with this.

The faith in referees is evident in Romanian director Corneliu Poromboiu’s film The Second Game, where he talks to his father Adrián, a former FIFA referee, about a Bucharest derby, between Dinamo and Steaua, that the latter refereed in December 1988. The match took place in a blizzard that continued all through the match. The snowbound pitch is a fortuitous metaphor for sport as played in the late Ceausescu era. There is a surreal quality to the match, played at an unusually high speed in difficult conditions, the yellow Azteca ball flying back and forth on a screen that looks like a Brueghel tableau. ‘The Eternal Derby’ as Romanians call it pits what was the secret police team (Dinamo) against the army team (Steaua), with the added twist that Steaua was also the favourite of the Ceausescu family. Adrián Poromboiu evoked the pressure that might be put on referees by either side but he said that he never capitulated (the films opens with his son’s voiceover recalling answering the phone as an eight-year-old and an unnamed voice telling him to tell his father he should never referee again or else he’ll end up in a coffin).

In this game, Poromboiu’s refereeing is irreproachable –– there are several times when he intelligently plays advantage, without, he notes, having the authority to retrospectively award a free kick, as a rule change a decade or so later would allow. The game ends 0-0, with Dinamo the better side but Steaua going closest to scoring, rattling the crossbar in the second half. Poromboiu Senior’s commentary points out the power dynamics of the time: Dinamo change from white to blue in the second half because they don’t have a second white kit – against the rules but Poromboiu suggests he wasn’t in a position to be too strict about it. He also says that the official match broadcast would cut to wide shots of the crowd whenever any bad behaviour broke out on the pitch –– if there was anything that totalitarian regimes hate, it is outbreaks of anger and uncivil actions. But you wonder if Poromboiu is as innocent and incorruptible as he says. There is an echo of his son’s first film 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which a local TV station in a small Romanian town holds a debate on the 16th anniversary of the 1989 revolution to ascertain whether the ‘rebellion’ in the town took place before or after Ceausescu’s abdication. Not surprisingly, there is much ex post facto pleading and claims of heroism in that film. Was Adrián Poromboiu a little man doing his job or the beneficiary (or lackey) of power?

Though the film downplays the significance of the match (Poromboiu Senior says it a long forgotten game and his son wryly compares it to his own films –– ‘a bit boring and nothing really happens’), it is fascinating as a historical document, not least because of the period from which it dates but also because it offers a glimpse of a footballing world that people my age (and Corentin Poromboiu’s) remember but which looks impossibly alien and ‘prehistoric’ (Adrián’s words) now. It is also a glimpse at the Golden Generation of Romanian football. Lining out are thirteen members of the Romanian side that would play eighteen months later at Italia 90 and blossom fully at USA 94. All the big names are there: Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lacatus, Silviu Lung, Bogdan Stelea, Rodion Camataru, Miodrag Belodedici and a young Dan Petrescu. Steaua were at the height of their powers –– in the middle of a 104-game unbeaten run that stretched from just after their historic European Cup win in 1986 to a 3-0 home defeat to Dinamo in September 1989. They would also, later this same season, reach their second European Cup final, only to be destroyed 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s rampant Milan. The spectre of history loomed though –– the following year Belodedici, an ethnic Serb, fled the Ceausescu regime and absconded across the Danube to Yugoslavia and he would later play with Red Star/Crvena Zvezda and become the first player to win the European Cup with two different clubs. Luck was on his side and he eventually played for Romania again, after Ceausescu was toppled almost exactly a year after this match.

After being a fixture at tournaments throughout the 90s, Romania more or less disappeared from the top level of international football once the talent dried up (with the exception of one cameo at Euro 2008). There are now few of their players at top European clubs (‘we don’t produce those sort of players anymore’ says Adrián at one point in his commentary). One of the sole survivors from the match is Dinamo coach Mircea Lucescu, who has had a successful career abroad, managing Inter, Galatasaray, Besiktas and, since 2004, Shakhtar Donetsk, winning them their first ever European trophy in 2009. It is said that Lucescu honed his brand of devil-may-care attacking football in Romania in the 1980s because he assumed matches were fixed anyway so there was nothing to lose in throwing caution to the wind. When his Dinamo side met Steaua in December 1988, Dinamo’s cross-town rivals were nearing the end of a string of five titles in a row. There’s no suggestion of a fix in The Second Game but the poor visibility during the game is a reminder of how murky the Romanian game was in those days.

Originally published by Straight off the Beach.

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