Romania return to top 50
© AFP

Exactly a year ago, Romania sat in the top 50 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The Tricolorii raised eyebrows at home and abroad in April and May of 2011, occupying the 41st and 42nd spots respectively on the global ladder. Their obvious satisfaction at the rise turned out to be short-lived, however.

Nine months down the line, though, the Romanians can once again be considered one of the best 50 nations on the planet, with Victor Piturca’s men up eight places to 45th on the April 2012 Ranking. 

Piturca, the 55-year-old former Steaua Bucharest coach, is the principal driving force behind the recent progress made by a side that has appeared in the FIFA World Cup™ on seven occasions. Piturca’s record since taking over the reins in June 2011 speaks for itself: four wins, four draws and one loss (versus Belgium). 

The Orodel natvie has overseen some significant results during his tenure, including a home victory over Greece and draws with France and Uruguay. All three teams were much higher up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at the time. 

At this juncture, it would be premature to talk of a real resurgence of the team that represents one of only four nations to have played in the first three editions of the FIFA World Cup, the others being Brazil, France and Belgium. 

Romania fans are nevertheless hopeful that a return to the glory days experienced in the 1990s is achievable. That fruitful decade saw a team inspired by Gheorghe Hagi - voted the top Romanian footballer of the 20th century - qualify for FIFA’s flagship tournament three times in a row, in 1990, 1994 and 1998. Moreover, their performances were laudable in all three editions, with the side reaching the Round of 16 twice and the quarter-finals once. Since then, the central Europeans have struggled to emulate those feats.

Brazil the target destination
Despite an unimpressive record of just four appearances in 14 UEFA European Championships, Romania have also recorded noteworthy displays at continental level, such as their run to the EURO 2000 quarter-finals, which was ended by a 2-0 loss to eventual runners-up Italy. In the recent qualifying campaign for EURO 2012, they missed out reaching Poland and Ukraine by quite some distance.

The Romanian Football Federation (FRF) recently undertook an analysis of the issues facing their national side and, at the turn of the year, launched a three-year football development project. As FRF Technical Director Marian Mihail told UEFA.com in January, “We have never been a football nation which used physical power, like the northern European countries, because this wasn’t our strength.”  

“We don’t need to copy anyone, but obviously we’re going to take a look at how the major world powers go about their business. The biggest challenge we face right now is defending our national identity and, after having taken on board new strategies, developing our own."

The primary goal is to ensure that the entire national set-up, from youth teams right up to the senior side, plays exactly the same system. This approach will ensure that Piturca has, at any given moment, footballers accustomed to a formation and style that are set in stone.

Another major objective for Romania during this difficult transitional phase is to bring through a new generation of players to replace the old guard. Christian Chivu, a mainstay of Romania’s defence over the last 12 years, a period during which he earned 75 caps and scored three times, brought down the curtain on his international career last summer.

His retirement left Adrian Mutu as the only EURO 2000 participant to still regularly pull on the yellow jersey, although he is now surrounded by young talents who want nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of living legends such as Hagi, Dan Petrescu and Gheorghe Popescu.

The green shoots of recovery are therefore visible in Romanian football, and a potentially fruitful era awaits. All that remains is for the Tricolorii to make a grand return to the FIFA World Cup, a tournament for which they have not qualified since 1998. In a Group D that should be very closely contested indeed, formidable hurdles in the shape of the Netherlands, runners-up at South Africa 2010, Turkey and Hungary, among others, stand between Mutu and Co and Brazil 2014,.

Only time will tell if fortune will lend Romania a hand in their quest to appear on football’s greatest stage once again. Piturca, meanwhile, will be hoping this campaign is a case of third time lucky for him and his charges, following his failure to achieve the feat during two previous spells at the helm (1998-99 and 2004-09).