In terms of emotional attachment to football, Romanian fans are renowned for their passion and verve. In nine days their national team will entertain Hungary in Bucharest in what is shaping as a crucial 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier and former captain Marius Niculae is hoping that the home crowd can maintain their fervent support as Tricolorii seek a fourth win of their campaign.
"We have good football fans and their support can push us to get a good result," the 32-year-old striker told FIFA.com. "Cheered on by our supporters, we defeated the same opponents 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier in 2001. We can repeat the victory."
A home win will see Victor Piturca's side edge Hungary from second spot, though well behind runaway leaders Netherlands. The Romanians are optimistic of finishing second and thus claiming a play-off place should they fare well against their remaining three rivals: Turkey, Andorra and Estonia.
"We have a good chance this time," Niculae continued. "We are a team capable of playing against strong sides. We may have lost to Netherlands both home and away, but we have also managed three wins and a draw. So everything is possible."
The aforementioned home victory against Hungary twelve years ago marked a memorable game for Niculae, who scored both goals as they saw off their neighbouring rivals. A then emerging star for the national team, Niculae was on target again as they won the return with an identical scoreline. These results helped them finish second behind Italy for a play-off against Slovenia, during which they were agonisingly edged out over two legs and missed Korea/Japan 2002.
The past lessons should, according to Niculae, be learned if the team are to seal their first qualification for the global showpiece since France 1998. He said: "It is down to the team whether we can make it to the World Cup this time. If the players do their job well and we are blessed with luck, we can go to Brazil 2014."
Indeed, the decade-and-a-half FIFA World Cup absence is a long period for a team like Romania, one of only four nations to have taken part in the first three editions of world football's global extravaganza along with Brazil, France and Belgium. Inspired by the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, they stormed into the quarter-finals at USA 1994 with a sensational 3-2 defeat of Argentina, while four years later they progressed to the Round of 16 only to lose out to Croatia by a solitary goal.
"That was the golden era of our football," recalled Niculae. "We boasted several world-famous stars like Hagi and Florin Raducioiu. But now we have a different generation. Today children have more options aside from football. But over recent years we have come back. We qualified for our third UEFA Championship in 2008 and we are making consistent progress.
"We need to begin with youth development and lay foundations for the future. Hagi is lending his help, forming a youth academy with his own funds. The youngsters can draw inspiration from this legend. We are looking forward."
Martial Arts master
Even before his football career, Niculae was trained by his father in judo and attained a black belt. Not surprisingly, he has similar obsessions with other Asian martial arts like kung fu and he admitted judo training did provide him with help when he turned to football.
"In judo it first teaches you respecting the rival, an Asian mentality which is also key in playing football,” Niculae said. “And it requires flexibility and agility, skills which can help prevent injuries in football. I also like Chinese kung fu very much, a sport which embodies Asian wisdoms including fair play."
Having moved around Europe with spells in Belgium and Germany, Niculae earned a high-profile move to China at the start of this season, joining Chinese Super League giants Shandong Luneng. He initially had difficulties in acclimatisation which saw his Chinese sojourn end unexpectedly last month.
With 15 goals from 42 international appearances, Niculae is among Romania's most experienced players. However, he has missed the majority of this qualifying campaign, with his last cap coming in their 2-0 victory in Estonia last September. After joining Cypriot First Division side Anorthosis Famagusta recently, Niculae expressed a desire to use his experience to help his country, having figured in 17 FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Romania across 12 years.
"I am not sure if I can make it to our squad,” he said. “Our coach picks players on form and performance so I have to work hard to earn his belief. It is always my hope to play for my country.”