- Romania dazzled at the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups
- In the last of those tournaments, the entire team went blond
- The bet became notorious as the team crashed out in the last 16
In the 1990s, Romania didn’t need much help to catch the eye. With a golden generation of players headed by the outrageously talented Gheorge Hagi, they won an army of new admirers over the decade’s three FIFA World Cups.
The Romanians advanced to the knockout stage in each of those editions, finishing ahead of Argentina in their 1990 group before beating La Albiceleste en route to the 94 quarter-finals. Four years later, Hagi & Co shone once again, qualifying for the Round of 16 with a game to spare after back-to-back wins over Colombia and England. Yet when thinking of Romania’s France 98 adventure, it is not these fine results that spring immediately to mind.
Fans across the world will instead remember images such as this one, when the entire team – save for bald goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea – dyed their hair blond. “Before the tournament, we had put on a bet: to do a crazy thing if we got through the group,” Stelea later recalled. “That's how we all ended up blond - except me, who did not have much hair anymore!”
There was, in fact, another balding figure in the Romanian party: coach Anghel Iordanescu. But while he had promised to join the players’ show of camaraderie by shaving his head, he in fact stopped short – and then wore a baseball cap to cover his closely-cropped hair. “He tricked us! He did not respect his bet,” Stelea reflected in an interview with eusunt12.ro.
Indeed, while the gesture had been intended to build team spirit, it instead sparked uncertainty in the Romanian camp. While their first post-peroxide match was negotiated comfortably enough, with a 1-1 draw against Tunisia securing top spot, doubts were already creeping in.
“At first it was funny,” said Stelea. “Then, quickly, we - or that is, they - realised they had done a stupid thing. The wives did not support them, and some of the guys were not even blonde - they ended up with intermediate colours, hard to describe, strange, ugly!”
Ahead of facing Croatia in the last 16, Iordanescu - a superstitious and religious man - even pleaded with his squad to reverse the colour change, and suggested the game’s outcome could hinge on it. But the players brushed aside his appeals, pointing out that the match was looming and that they no more time to experiment with their hair.
The rest, of course, is history, with Croatia prevailing thanks to a Davor Suker penalty in the sweltering Bordeaux heat. It would be Romania’s last match of that and, to date, any World Cup, leaving memories of their blond brigade as a bizarre conclusion to the most brilliant of decades.