‘Radical change’: resurgent Romania seek to forge new legacy at Euro 2024

<span>Romania players train at the Munich Football Arena before their opening group game against Ukraine.</span><span>Photograph: Jasmin Walter/Uefa/Getty Images</span>
Romania players train at the Munich Football Arena before their opening group game against Ukraine.Photograph: Jasmin Walter/Uefa/Getty Images

A smile spreads across Anghel Iordanescu’s face as he considers his incorrigible bequest to Romanian football. “I go to Edi’s house for a glass of wine,” he says. “But he just wants to show me some analysis he has done. I tell him: ‘Be careful, you’ll get stuck in front of that computer!’”

The 74-year-old is talking about Edward, his son, who has dragged the national team out of the mire and into Euro 2024. Thirty years ago Anghel took them to the World Cup quarter-finals with an intoxicating attacking style that has remained an impossible benchmark ever since. Hagi, Dumitrescu, Raducioiu, Petrescu, Popescu: the memories are magical and perhaps, at last, a country whose football scene had descended into corruption and hopelessness is ready to forge some more.

Related: Artem Dovbyk’s path from Ukraine’s third tier to La Liga’s finest finisher

If Anghel embodies the more savoury elements of Romania’s celebrated past, Edward points to a progressive future. As a 16‑year‑old he travelled to the US and watched, along with an anxious travelling contingent who clutched crosses in the stands and prayed for miracles, as the man he most admired sealed a place in history. The decline since then has been profound: Edward has seen both extremes and now, along with a revitalised football federation that wants to make Romania a benchmark for probity, he senses they are on the way back.

“It was like there was a cancer inside the squad,” Edward says of the setup he inherited in January 2022. Romania had reached only one major tournament, Euro 2016, since 2008. They had felt the pain of neglected infrastructure and a culture of unprofessionalism among players who, while unquestionably talented, often drifted through their careers with inadequate guidance. “They hadn’t been coming with the correct mindset and I believe at least some of them didn’t give everything. They had lost trust in themselves, in the national team, in what they could do together.”

Back in 1994 there were few such concerns. Communism had fallen five years previously and Romanian football would eventually fall into the void that followed. But Anghel could call upon a core of players who, although allowed to move abroad after the regime’s collapse, had been steeped in the heavily state-supported rigours of those times. The domestic giants had more than held their own abroad, Steaua Bucharest winning the European Cup in 1986. “The players developed in that period were very serious, very professional, very involved, put football over everything,” Anghel says, sitting in a room around the corner from the specially purposed office building where Edward and his staff work.

“There was big competition between Steaua, Dinamo Bucharest and Universitatea Craiova. That club rivalry brought a rivalry between the players, encouraging them to play better, get into the national team and perform strongly there. I was a very meticulous, careful head coach. I asked a lot in training but on the other hand I was very close to the players away from the field of play.”

The unravelling was dramatic. Romania’s clubs had the rug pulled away financially and, mirroring a wider trend in society, struggled to function. “Globally there were so many developments going into football – science, technology, everything – and we couldn’t keep up the pace,” Edward says. “We were very far off, it was a big gap between us and the rest of Europe. They had better organisation, management and methodology for developing players.”

Football in Romania became a byword for short-termism and, in many cases, outright corruption. Match-fixing has dogged it for decades. The network behind it, often involving favours doled out between specific clubs, was known as Cooperativa: for most on the domestic scene it became priced in and, by the early 2000s, it risked eating the sport whole.

“We needed radical change, and someone who could implement a reform process,” says Razvan Burleanu, the Romanian football federation president. Burleanu, son of the respected former midfielder Gheorghe Burleanu, was an outsider for the role when he decided to run in 2014 at the age of 29. Young, highly educated and experienced on the grassroots scene from spells as a referee and heading up the local minifootball federation, he brought a new broom to a festering organisation.

“Integrity was not a key element for our football until then,” Burleanu says. He implemented what he calls “a strategy to clean up Romanian football”, creating a department to deal with manipulation. The average age of federation staff was reduced to 37 and the representation of women increased to 40%. The league format was changed to include playoff systems that reduced the number of dead games, which were traditionally susceptible to fixing. Romania needed to shake off the darker elements of its past while retaining its more alluring points of difference.

“Our system was so corrupted that many people didn’t believe we could be successful with our vision,” Burleanu says. “But since around 2018 the level of trust has increased a lot, even if sometimes it seems to be recognised more easily from afar.” Match-fixing was turning fans away from football but the public have regained faith, and last season, more fans attended top-flight matches than at any point since 1994.

It was Anghel who, in a third spell at the helm, took Romania to Euro 2016. When the vacancy arose again five and a half years later, Burleanu tasked his analysts with assessing the performances of every Romanian club coach in the previous few years, producing a report showing the position in which they had left their teams relative to the finances available. Edward, who had managed Astra Giurgiu and CFR Cluj before taking over at Steaua’s controversial successor club FCSB, came out on top.

“My dad was always a model and the most important person to follow,” Edward says, remembering how he would come to watch games at Steaua, where Anghel was player, coach and manager during his early years, as a child and take half-time shots against the reserve goalkeeper in front of 30,000 fans. During an unremarkable playing career he always had another goal in mind. “I had in my heart from very early that I wanted to be a coach. Even from around 18 I would write things down that struck me in my notebook. I retired after breaking my leg at 27 but, in reality, I had already begun preparing myself for the next stage.”

Roberto De Zerbi, an acquaintance from the Italian’s stint as a player with CFR, opened Brighton’s doors to Edward for a week and the current Italy manager, Luciano Spalletti, is among other well-known names to have given their time. From nowhere Romania produced a stupendous qualifying campaign for this summer’s finals, topping Group I with 22 points and finishing unbeaten in their 10 games.

The Tottenham defender Radu Dragusin was fundamental to a mean defensive base while the creative wiles of Nicolae Stanciu and Ianis Hagi, son of Gheorghe, guaranteed a genuine attacking threat. They face Ukraine on Monday in an open group that also includes Belgium and Slovakia. Edward says: “We needed this moment. We needed to win back our confidence, to win back the trust of the people, to understand we can be among the best. We never missed the talent, it was there all the time. But for a long time we didn’t know what to do with it.”

Related: Kevin De Bruyne: the gloriously unfiltered star who gives oxygen to Belgium

This time Romania need to set down roots and show they can become a consistent presence on the European stage. During the Guardian’s visit Burleanu drives to Alba Iulia, a city in Transylvania, alongside the federation’s veteran technical director, Mihai Stoichita. The pair make multiple such trips each month: this one is to open one of the smart new local pitches that the federation, buoyed by private investment, is building in rural areas around the country.

“I want to increase our relevance in society, increase our social impact,” Burleanu says. “And I want Romanian football to become a source of inspiration. I want us to give a feeling of happiness and pride in this country.”

Back in Bucharest he joins both Iordanescus on the red carpet at a city centre cinema. The film is a fly‑on-the-wall documentary charting the qualification campaign, produced with Edward’s signoff but without the players’ knowledge. Some of its dressing room shots, showcasing the manager’s emphatic team talks, have viral potential. A who’s who of the local football scene clink glasses and the feeling, at long last, is one of a sport feeling comfortable in its own skin.

For Anghel, the smile widens when the thought occurs that Edward may add a fresh chapter to the dynasty’s success story this month. “I’m sure he’s a better coach than I ever was,” he says, although a run-through of his list of achievements quickly follows for balance. “In my religion it’s not right to say you’re proud, so I’m smiling because I don’t know how to say it. But of course I’m very happy. It’s something that goes directly into my heart.”