“I was seven or eight years old,” the text on the screen reads. “The phone at home rang. A man’s voice gave me a mission: to convince my father to give up refereeing. If I did not succeed, one day dad would come home in a coffin. I told my father what the stranger said. My father continued to referee.” As the text fades to black, grainy footage appears in its stead, of a stadium enveloped in snow, the full stands a sea of umbrellas and fur hats. A close-up of a referee striding confidently toward the middle of the pitch follows. He checks his watch and smiles to his assistants, neon yellow ball in hand. 

This is the opening scene of a film entitled The Second Game, directed by the Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose biting satire of the Romanian Revolution, 12:08 East of Bucharest, won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes in 2006. He was recognised again at Cannes this year for another whimsical effort, The Treasure, part of a yearly flood of small-budget, darkly funny offerings from a Romanian film industry undergoing something of a renaissance. In between these more conventional narrative features, Porumboiu and other directors like him tinker with more experimental fare. There’s also an undercurrent of hard-nosed realism tinged with nostalgia in the Romanian New Wave about the Communist period, particularly the bleak years of the 1980s under the Ceaușescu regime – the so-called ‘Golden Age’. But even by these standards, The Second Game, a film that turns out to be nothing more than a full television broadcast recording of a football match, played beginning to end with no interruptions, replays, or music is unusual. 

The date is 3 December 1988 and the match in the snow is Bucharest’s fiercely contested Steaua-Dinamo derby, the sole focal point of Romanian domestic football during the 1980s. The referee who strides confidently on the field is Adrian Porumboiu, the director’s father. The film’s only soundtrack, as the neon ball pings back and forth from player to player, is a conversation between father and son – halting, occasionally awkward, marked by long stretches of silence interrupted only by the sound of buzzing smartphones. Why would such a film be made? What is it supposed to tell us? And why, of all matches that might have been socially or politically significant under a Communist dictatorship, are we watching this one in its entirety? 

“How did you decide to let the match go ahead?” Corneliu asks his father as an opening conversational gambit. “I had gone out three times or so before kick-off to check the state of the pitch,” Adrian answers nonchalantly. His job as the referee was to test the bounce of the ball and most importantly the visibility from the halfway line. Otherwise, it was not against the rules for the pitch to be covered in snow. What would have happened if he had decided the conditions weren’t right? Nothing, apparently. The match would have been abandoned and fans and players alike would have gone home quietly. But from the start, we know the events of the next 90 minutes could have unfolded as they did only because of this original decision. The referee is like God, or the butterfly in the layman’s explanations of chaos theory. Let there be football. 

“Were you afraid?” is Corneliu’s second question to his father. In those days, Steaua and Dinamo were the footballing embodiments of the two institutions foundational to the regime: the Army and Securitate, the secret police. By the mid-1980s, the Romanian domestic league was structured as a duopoly, with a dizzying array of satellite teams acting as feeder clubs and pliant opposition for the top two sides. The country’s best players were drawn to Steaua and Dinamo by material promises – houses, cars, television sets and the like – and occasionally by coercion and intimidation. Referees played their part by stretching matches well beyond 90 minutes and other unsubtle means. There was, as Jonathan Wilson writes in Behind the Curtain, an aura of pervasive corruption and paranoia about the Romanian game that has never quite gone away since. Adrian is dismissive of his son’s question. He was not afraid on that day. But he does recall his first Steaua-Dinamo derby, when he was thoroughly investigated by both sides beforehand. An army colonel called him up to a hotel in Bucharest and a Securitate officer met him at Bucharest’s main railway station (he was from the provincial town of Vaslui in Moldova), to exert the usual pressure. As he tells it, Adrian then went to the Federation and reported matter-of-factly that both teams had tried to influence him. He was considered insane for doing so and left to referee in peace. We might not know the full truth of this story, but the lasting impression it leaves is of the necessity of fashioning oneself as above corruption, of being clean in the dirtiest possible sporting environment. 

The duopoly was enshrined, as the former Dinamo player and manager Cornel Dinu recalled, around the 1982-83 season in what he calls a Pax Romana between representatives of the Securitate and the Interior Ministry on the one hand and the Ceaușescu family on the other. The dictator’s brother Ilie, an Army general, was Steaua’s patron, while the day-to-day running of the team was entrusted to Valentin Ceaușescu, the dictator’s son, a soft-spoken physicist educated in London who set about his task of reviving Steaua’s fortunes with dignity and professionalism. At that time, Dinamo had won three championships and two cups and reached the pinnacle of their European success by advancing to the semi-finals of the European Cup. But the eternal rivalry with Steaua was, if anything, growing more intense and underhand. Would it not be better, the two sides agreed, to ensure that Romania could always produce two strong teams to compete in Europe and thereby bring glory and international prestige to the Communist regime? This was all the more important in an era when the Romanian people began to endure extraordinary hardships and Ceaușescu’s bizarre personality cult was on the rise. Steaua’s legendary European Cup triumph in Seville in 1986 seemed to testify to the soundness of this strategy. 

Paradoxically, the Steaua-Dinamo derbies were often genuinely competitive and largely free of obvious corruption. Whatever went on behind the scenes in the ministries and corridors of power, on the pitch there was no sign of a cordial entente. While the outcomes of many other matches against satellite teams were preordained, there was an air of unpredictability, even subversion, about the meetings of these two teams, which would usually decide the fate of a league or cup season. Every Steaua-Dinamo game, as the Romanian sociologist Florin Poenaru writes, “was an overt-covert confrontation between the army and the Securitate in their search for symbolic assertion… The knowledge of this split in the system was not hidden information available only to insiders of the regime, but was made public through every game.” The December 1988 fixture was remarkable not because of what happened on the pitch – by now we’re in the 20th minute and nothing much has – but because of when it took place. The previous March witnessed the single most controversial and tainted derby in the history of Steaua-Dinamo, a cup final played on the neutral ground of the national stadium. A 90th minute Steaua winner, at 1-1, was incorrectly ruled offside (according to both the old and the new rules, Adrian reminds his son), and the Steaua players, suspecting the Securitate had bought off the referees, walked off the pitch with the blessing of Valentin Ceaușescu. The cameras cut away from the scene and the result was only announced the following day. The referee’s decision was reversed and Steaua awarded the cup. 

The league encounter the following March ended in even more extraordinary circumstances. At the end of a match in which the referee sent off two Dinamo players, one of them at the insistence of the Steaua players, the Dinamo captain Ioan Andone fell to his knees in front of the official box where Valentin Ceaușescu sat and theatrically waved both his hands in the air, with his middle fingers raised. He received a lifetime ban for his disrespect and lack of fair play, and because such a blatant challenge to the regime seemed inconceivable at the time – although the revolution that would topple Ceaușescu erupted only months later, in December 1989. Andone’s ban was reversed at the insistence of Steaua’s Marius Lăcătuș, who was concerned about the national team’s prospects in the lead-up to a crucial fixture against Denmark in the World Cup qualifying campaign for Italia 90. 

“You’re not going to make a film out of this, are you?” Adrian asks his son around the half-hour mark. “We’ll see,” Corneliu replies cryptically. Football goes through phases, the father insists. It is a “perishable commodity”, meant to be consumed only in the moment. Somewhat exaggeratedly, he claims that no one will want to watch a film about Messi in five years. Just look at what happened to Ronaldinho. Once he enchanted the world, and no one so much as thinks about him now. At any rate, there have been many matches played in the snow far more important than this one – in the Bundesliga, the Champions League and so on. “But you didn’t referee those,” says Corneliu. Now, counters Adrian, if this match was played in the year of the Revolution, maybe the director could tie it into historical events or grand geopolitical developments. But no such luck here. To bolster his case for the futility of what his son might have in mind, he cites the controversial cup final of the previous year, when Steaua’s players had walked off the pitch. But in doing so, he implicitly highlights precisely the reason why this December fixture was so charged. It was the first time the two sides had met since that cup final. “If I had let the players fight each other,” as they were wont to do, Adrian proudly states, the match would have gotten out of hand and there might have been something to write home about. A tense but calm contest, played literally and figuratively in the eye of a storm, was the most satisfying outcome – for the referee, at the very least, and perhaps even for the two teams as well. Historical circumstances and weather alike conspired to create a greater enemy and force to battle against than each other. However, while the son sees beauty in the struggle, the father at this point sees none. “I like the snow, it’s like in a story,” muses Corneliu. Nonsense, says Adrian. Everything is archaic: the quality of the film, the state of the pitch, a political meaning long since obsolete. No one will watch this. The world lives in the present. 

Apart from the snow, the first half of the match is remembered among football enthusiasts and journalists for the gruesome head injury sustained by Rodion Cămătaru, the Dinamo forward who won the European Golden Boot the previous year in typically suspicious circumstances. Having taken a knock early on in the match during an aerial confrontation with a Steaua defender, he appears around the 15th minute heavily bandaged and bleeding profusely. The cameras never showed him going off the field and receiving treatment, Corneliu observes. Indeed, every time there is a scuffle or clash between players, which happens quite often in the first half, the cameras clumsily pan away to the static and well-behaved crowds, usually with interspersed pockets of soldiers in dark green, on this occasion made even more homogeneous and indistinguishable by the snow. Dinamo seem to prefer the difficult conditions, being the more physical side, playing at home and needing the win more. Steaua, the more technical and possession-based side, boasting gifted players like Gheorghe Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu (the future heroes of USA 94), are content to sit back. You can tell where the action is happening, as Adrian points out, by the mud-to-snow ratio. Applying that standard, the Steaua box is the busiest patch of ground. The ball enters the goal only once, around the 24th minute, but the referee calls a foul by Cămătaru on Silviu Lung, the Steaua goalkeeper. Cămătaru’s white shirt is soaked in blood by now and Adrian sends the forward to the touchline to obtain a new bandage. 

Looking back on his refereeing performance, Adrian is most proud of how judiciously he applied the advantage rule, which at the time did not allow referees to go back on their decision to play the advantage and give a free-kick. The referee’s job, according to him, is to “ensure the flow of the game” – a romantic notion of what football is all about, lent additional weight by the distinct political and meteorological conditions under which this particular match was played. Adrian is passionate about this notion of flow, viewing it as the ultimate end of the referee’s assertion of authority as a benevolent whistle-bearing overlord. Set the rules but let them play. It’s as simple as that. 

At half-time, the Dinamo players change their shirts to blue for the only time in the club’s history, their traditional white shirts having become difficult to see in the snow. It’s a change that wouldn’t be allowed nowadays, notes Adrian. He also returns to the radical contingency of his original decision to let the match go ahead. The snow is falling harder and it’s fortunate that it wasn’t dropping down at this rate one or two hours before kick-off. Surely, in that case, the match would have had to be called off. But given the importance of the derby, it would be impossible to abandon it now. In the 53rd minute, Dinamo’s Ioan Ovidiu Sabău plays a dangerous cross into the box and the dynamic midfielder Dănuț Lupu attempts a futile bicycle kick. It is the clearest chance yet. A young Florin Răducioiu, another future hero of USA 94, comes on for Dinamo in the 70th minute. Corneliu declares, after another long silence, “I like the match. It’s beautiful.” “There’s no beauty in it,” Adrian begins to protest once again, but this time with more hesitation, “except for the players’ fighting spirit and determination, of course.”

Around the 80th minute, something happens at last. A Steaua player, likely the forward Victor Pițurcă (neither father nor son are sure in the moment), is blatantly brought down in the Dinamo box. He would have been clear on goal, but the referee plays the advantage. The ball falls to Ilie Dumitrescu on the six-yard line, who thunders his shot against the crossbar. Adrian becomes suddenly very animated. He asks, “Can we play it again?” right after the official replay. Corneliu demurs. The self-imposed rules of his experimental film forbid it. The tape continues to run. This was a much-discussed decision at the time, Adrian recalls. According to current rules, he would have been able to go back and give Steaua a well-deserved penalty, since the advantage was eventually not realised. But Dumitrescu’s chance, alone in the six-yard box with Dinamo goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea, was arguably even clearer than a penalty. “What more do you want?” exclaims Adrian. He had played the advantage throughout the match to ensure flow, so why do anything differently now? What if Dumitrescu had gone on to score and he had stopped play? Just think of the criticism he would have had to face then. Don’t worry, he assures his son, I’m only talking about the pages of the newspapers, all above board, not generals or Securitate officers. He is now more confident than ever that he made the right decision. Plus, he jokes, he wouldn’t have even been able to find the penalty spot in the mud and snow. Better to save himself the effort. 

By the time the final whistle blows, Steaua have begun to play with more confidence and a kind of balance has been reached. The final result, an unedifying 0-0, changed nothing. Steaua would go on to win the title and the cup and would soon experience yet another European Cup final in the spring of 1989, losing heavily at the Camp Nou to Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. As the generation of players who had triumphed in Seville disbanded, Dinamo grew in strength and took the title in 1990, the season that spanned the most momentous event in Romania’s twentieth-century history. After Communism fell, the carefully calibrated duopoly whereby the country’s best players were shepherded into one or the other of the flagship clubs, then brought together in a national team that would go on to achieve such memorable results at the World Cup, fell apart. Steaua and Dinamo immediately sold their best players to foreign teams across Europe and Romanian club football entered a long period of decline. The names on the team sheets that day – the managers Anghel Iordănescu and Mircea Lucescu, the Steaua players Hagi, Dumitrescu, Pițurcă, Balint, Belodedici, Dan Petrescu and Lăcătuș, the Dinamo players Lupescu, Răducioiu, Cămătaru, Andone, Lupu and Stelea – would become recognisable to football fans worldwide while acquiring a nostalgic, elegiac quality for Romanian fans. The relationship between an authoritarian, closed political system operating outside the neoliberal rules of contemporary transfer markets and the sheer quality of the football it nurtured continues to fascinate. The sociologist Poenaru asks, “Was not the very negativity on which soccer was premised – political interests, limited TV access, stigmatisation as lowbrow mass entertainment etc. – the basis on which positive personal and collective significations could be formulated?” There was something vibrant, raw and deeply meaningful about Romanian football in the 1980s, which many struggle to find or recapture today. At the same time, this ineffable quality was undoubtedly the product of a corrupt and fundamentally rigged system. The 1990s and 2000s have witnessed the persistence of the latter without the romance of the former. 

The fundamental tension between the structural elements of Romanian football off the pitch in December 1988 and the rigidly enforced spectacle of the events on the pitch runs right through the film. For Adrian Porumboiu, who later became a wealthy club owner beset by his own share of scandals after the end of an illustrious refereeing career, professionalism and honour clash with the well-known climate of corruption against which these values were so carefully cultivated. For the players, the bitter fight against one another and against the elements made the everyday political negotiations for survival and self-promotion temporarily recede into the background. In this sense, the fact that the score is 0-0 is key to the entire meaning of the film. It is the answer to the question of why it might have been made and why we might want to watch it and remember the events of 3 December 1988 more than 25 years later. Presented without the original commentary, the match itself is not important for what happened. Nothing really did. There was no dramatic goal or even a coherent narrative of success or failure to break the ‘flow’. Weather and politics alike rendered the 23 men on the pitch heroic: the players for struggling mightily against the snow and the referee for upholding a sporting ideal amidst a rotten system. Or, we might wonder as the credits roll, it could well be that the meaning of the film is the exact opposite – a portrait of a match that should never have been allowed to go on in the first place and in which no one was clean or immune from the rot. 

Shortly before the final whistle, after the excitement of discussing the controversial non-award of the penalty subsides, Adrian watches in rapt attention. “Look how the players are throwing themselves around, sacrificing themselves!” The pitch was by now practically unusable. “What a fight they’re putting up!” The son, perhaps with a wry smile, gently prods, “You’ve started to like it!” The father, lost in thought, then says, “The snowflakes seem bigger now.”