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Romanian dreams of a nearby land

The Europa League kicks off with the First Qualifying Round, seven days from now. This season the Football Fairground will be keeping a close eye on this much-maligned European competition.

Few could argue that Michel Platini has spent a good deal of his UEFA Presidency looking east to the nations that made up the former Soviet block during the Cold War. Next year the European Championships will take place in Poland and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.

In May, the brand new National Stadium in Bucharest, Romania will host the Final of the UEFA Europa League. However, this once great footballing nation appears to have struggled somewhat with the transition from Soviet Communism to a market-based society with once great clubs struggling to compete. The chance of any of the four Romanian clubs making it to the Grand Finale in Bucharest are extremely slim.

As with many clubs on the other side of the old Iron Curtain, Romania have suffered from the relative poverty of their economy and the league’s general inability to retain top class players. This has lead to a lack of investment and the almost inevitable suggestion that corruption and match fixing is never far away.

On the European stage the high water mark was Steaua Bucharest's victory in the 1986 European Cup Final when they beat Barcelona on penalties, in Sevilla. These days, the idea of a Romanian club ever coming close to such a feat is fanciful. CFR Cluj and Unirea Urziceni were recent participants of the Champions League stage (thanks in part to Platini’s promise to give clubs from the poorer leagues a bit of a leg up in terms of qualification). However, neither team have been able to build on that success. In fact Urziceni were relegated from the First Division at the end of last season.

Another club relegated last season were Timisoara who actually finished runners up but were denied a licence by the league because of the level of debt the club is carrying. The situation is very complicated and I’m sure that Poli fans believe themselves a victim of an injustice but the upshot of it is that everyone below them moved up one spot. Good news for Vaslui who now take the second Champions League spot. Good news also for the Transylvania club, CS Gaz Metan Media? who finished in seventh place and now find themselves in the Second Qualifying Round of the Europa League. They will play Kuopion Palloseura (KuPs to you and I) of Finland in mid July.

Prior to the revolution in 1989, Dinamo Bucharest were the club of the hated and feared Romanian secret police, the Securitate. Dinamo’s last title was in 2007 and have never made it into the group stage of the Champions League. They finished in sixth place in the League but have been bumped up to the Third Qualifying Round so their journey to the Group Stage of the Europa League is somewhat shorter than they had initially expected..

There are two other Bucharest clubs hoping to make the long trip back to their home city in May. Rapid Bucharest finished third and go straight into the Play Off Round. The three-times domestic champions may have a more modest history than their illustrious neighbours but in George Copos they have a wealthy owner. The former Government minister is a controversial figure but his club are the top dogs in the City, this year.

Liverpool fans will have seen Romania’s most famous club, Steaua, as recently as last year as the two teams faced each other in the Europa League Group Stage. After getting drubbed 4-1 at Anfield they managed to rescue some credibility at the Ghencea with a 1-1 draw. In fact, the former army club only managed one win in Group K last season. They finished a poor third behind Liverpool and Napoli. Steaua still remain the most successful League team in Romania but have not come close to winning a domestic title since narrowly missing out to Cluj in 2008. Former Urziceni boss Ronny Levy had been given the task of trying to revive this famous old club.

Realistically and with all due respect to Dinamo and Media?, it's probably Rapid and Steaua that represent the best chance of Romanian participation in the Group Stage by virtue of their presence in the Play Off Round. They will be hoping for a kind draw in the Play Off Round, perhaps in the form of one of the smaller teams that make it from the first or second round of qualifiers. However, there are some decent teams from the big western European leagues in that pot and if those balls are unforgiving, the dream of a Romanian club walking out for a Romanian Final in May will remain just that.

The Football Fairground is proud to be part of the Europa Legion, a network of Europa League bloggers. Follow the Europa Legion on Twitter.

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