The Saddest Soccer Game of All Time

Well according to the poll (so far anyway), people want to hear some more about my personal life.

The thing you have to understand is that I am somewhat like Kramer from Seinfeld. I don’t look anything like him in either physical appearance or dress but I do seemingly have no visible means of financial support, I do things for larks and I always end up okay despite little to no planning ahead of time.

Yesterday I saw an odd young woman on a bicycle which reminded me that I have never yet written the True Story of the Saddest Soccer Game Of All Time, despite having promised to do so earlier. So here you go:

Once upon a time, a few cold and rainy winters ago, I was living in the basement of a friend of mine’s house for a few weeks. This house, while beautiful, was located in a small village on a fairly remote mountaintop. The only inhabited place nearby was a small village a little bit further down the mountain and I often wiled away my days there, talking, gossiping and drinking mostly.

Unfortunately this mountain was (and still is) so remote that there weren’t any banks or ATMs (Cash Points). There wasn’t really even a store in this village, just a small place selling mostly alcoholic drinks and coffee so I wasn’t spending a whole lot of money but one day it came to a point where I needed some. And my money was in a bank and the bank was far away.

Romania has three official designations for inhabited places:

City (Oras) – Can be anything from a very small town of a few thousands to a gigantic metropolis like Bucharest.

Town (Comuna) – Technically bigger than a village but not by much. Probably has a few stores and perhaps some other facilities.

Village (Sat) – As low as you can go – can be two houses sitting somewhat near each other surrounded by fields. Doubtless there is even a store and if there is one, it’s probably run out of someone’s basement or extra room of their house.

Therefore I was living in a village (sat) and needed to go to the nearest town (comuna), which while I knew it was barely more than a wide spot in the road, I had heard there might be a working ATM there.

The problem was that it was 45 minutes away (each direction) by car and way too far to walk on foot. My only chance was to ride with someone going that direction and then coming back to the village as there are no buses or other forms of transportation.

The “good news” here is that my friend’s boyfriend, whom I shall Catalin, for that is his infernal name, had something of a “job” down in this nearby town. I hesitate to name the town to avoid casting any slur or suspicion on this poor, miserable place but yet I shall – its name is Iara (yah-rah).

Catalin spoke no English and Romanian very quickly and used lots of slang and jargon. Sadly. he grew up in the extremely disagreeable neighborhood of Portile de Fier in my otherwise fine home town of Cluj. Therefore it was like talking to some inner city kid all slangy and rarely enunciating and so I never did quite understand what his job was down there in Iara.

Until the day I went with him because I needed to get to the bank. So he, I and my friend pile into the car and shake and bounce our way down a twisty mountain road for a good 45 minutes and then get to a flat part and zoom, we are in Iara.

A person with a good arm could throw a baseball from one end of Iara to the other. It really isn’t much more than a wide spot on a Romanian “highway” and it’s about 25 total buildings on each side although technically a few thousand people live there.

The good news is yes there was an ATM and yes my card worked and so within five minutes I was done with what I had to do. But I had to wait until Catalin finished his job as he was my ride back.

The car was parked alongside a non-descript house and as I approached, I saw Catalin come out bearing a plastic jug. It turned out that the jug is filled with gasoline and using a funnel he poured it into the gas tank – something along the lines of 5 gallons/20 liters.

Through translation I find out that the gasoline is what he gets paid, i.e. there’s not any actual cash. Actually there’s a few more benefits to come, but that’s after his job is done.

So what is the work? Turns out Catalin is a soccer (football) player. In Iara. The symbol of the city is a large miner’s wrench and cog so I assume at one time there was some mining in the area but what that was, I have no idea.

It turns out Iara has a soccer field (football pitch) just two minutes walk from the ATM. The field is muddy, poorly kept and surrounded on three sides by a large field. The fourth side abuts a person with a house and his attendant garden and animals meandering about.

Back in the Communist days, I assume that the local government sponsored a team but in these days, they’re all privately owned. While a top-notch team would set you back a few million Euros, apparently smaller teams can be had for a reasonable price.

In this case, it was a businessman from Cluj who bought Iara’s team (and owns, amongst other things, the Sora Shopping Center downtown). Since the team absolutely sucked, owning it was a measure of pure vanity. I won’t digress here but I had other occasions to meet this man and he is vain indeed.

So there you go, Catalin was getting paid a jug of gasoline to come down once a week or so and play a soccer game for this vain idiot from Cluj. The team’s performance was so horrendous that there was no charge to attend the game, not even any tickets. Anyone could wander in as there wasn’t even a fence.

Not that one was necessary. The only spectators were myself, Catalin’s girlfriend and two gypsies who meandered in and sat on the benches, eating and spitting out sunflower seeds non-stop.

After some warm-up drills and general running around (sorry, not much of a sports fan here nor expert) the other team showed up, equally from some tiny, unknown town, only they had maybe 20 or so supporters who sat on the other side of the field to cheer them on.

Let the game begin! And so it did, with me sitting in the stands as cold wind whipped through the bleachers, nursing a beer and watching this pathetic game. I knew it was approaching a surreal level when I saw Catalin, playing some kind of defensive position, light up a cigarette on the field when the ball was down at the other end.

Whew, mercy!

So the game dragged on, as all sports games do (sorry, again not much of a fan). Luckily about halfway through the match two little ragamuffin girls from the village saw my friend’s dog and came over to investigate.

Romanians are generally quite shy and country people even more shy and little country girls even more shy than that. Nonetheless, the little pickaninnies wanted to play with the dog so I got dispatched to go with them and keep herd on the group.

The girls had a great time, giggling and laughing constantly, but they didn’t do much actual speaking and verbalizing. I managed to find out they were both in school and heard they would learn English one day from a Romanian teacher (sigh). Other than that, not much, except it was clear they hadn’t had much experience of walking a dog on a leash as they kept getting tripped up in it.

Finally the game was over (Iara sadly losing) and the visiting team and gang sped off in their motley collection of automobiles. Laid out near the field however was a feast for the home team (another part of their pay), a hardcore Romanian “grill out” (gratar) meaning mostly charred meat but also a cut-up salad of raw tomatoes and cucumbers.

And lots and lots of mineral (sparkling) water and wine in little red plastic cups. Yum. So I sat there, mostly drinking wine (trying to stay warm, don’t you know!) and listening as the team mates joked around, pigged out, slammed cups of wine and smoked cartons of cigarettes.

After a while the individuals would peel off and head back to wherever in different cars and the like until there remained a core group including the team owner and Catalin and maybe three or four others. Due to the fact it was now night-time and bitterly cold, the group decided en masse to rejoin to a bar in town.

The “bar” was your generic hardcore Romanian bar, which I will hereby describe for those have never been blessed to visit such a fine establishment. It’s a small enclosed place with tables and chairs. There is indeed a bar which always has a coffee machine (to make instant) as well as pour drinks and take beers out of a refrigerator. Other than that, the decor is spare to non-existant although there is usually at least some kind of music playing.

We sat around the table and alas, my normally razor sharp instincts were slightly dulled and I got roped into playing a drinking game called “Groapa” (graw-pah) with the several bottles of wine on our table.

“Groapa” literally means “the hole” so I guess in English the drinking game would be called “down the hatch”. All you do is fill up a small glass of wine, say “groapa” (down the hatch!) and then chug the entire glass of wine alongside the other players.

Just in case it’s not obvious, it only takes a few glasses of wine being slammed down your throat in rapid succession before you are stone cold drunk. Romanian wine is quite delicious and affordable and should be sipped and drunk leisurely, not gulped down. Just a little FYI for you there ;)

I guess I got a little ambitious and thought I could compete against the advanced livers of the Iara soccer team and so within a short time I was completely wasted. I got so messed up that I asked my friend and went and sat down in the back seat of the car and then immediately passed out. The cold air felt good and I was out like a light, not waking up until much later when the party was over and we were on our way back to the village.

Oh and that woman I saw yesterday, in her early 30’s, riding on a bicycle? She was smoking a cigarette simultaneously. Don’t you wish I had a picture of that?

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