x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When in Rome, Cluj stun Roma

The Argentine striker Culio scores twice in their European Cup debut as Barca unseat Lisbon.

CFR Cluj's Juan Culio, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his second goal against AS Roma in Rome yesterday.
CFR Cluj's Juan Culio, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his second goal against AS Roma in Rome yesterday.

These are astonishing times for a club called CFR Cluj, and the fearsome band of foreign players who attempt to do them a turn. A night of magic and mayhem in Rome concluded with one of their players, an Argentina fellow going by the name of Juan Culio, turning into a Romanian. No smoke and mirrors, and a night probably made more of black magic and grim depression for those who follow AS Roma.

The illusion could soon become reality for Culio, or "Coolio" as he was received in the town's local newspapers yesterday, after he and Cluj ransacked the Olympic Stadium to leave Roma reeling. After their debut in Champions League Group A yesterday, Cluj returned to Romania carrying with them three points, more than £250,000 (Dh1.64m) and a 2-1 win. Barcelona handed the coach Pep Guardiola a 3-1 win over Sporting Lisbon, Atletico Madrid returned to European competition after a 11-year absence beating PSV Eindhoven 3-0, while Werder Bremen at home were held to a goalless draw by Anorthosis Famagusta.

But the upstarts of the night were Cluj. A truly breathtaking tale for a minute club who clambered up a hill last year to relieve Steaua Bucharest of the national league title and reached the top of a mountain by downing a Roma side , who looked likely to gorge on goals after Christian Panucci's opener. Members of Romania's national FA could be found scurrying around yesterday frantically trying to progress the paperwork that would enable Culio to join the national squad. "Culio played brilliantly," the Romanian Soccer Federation head Mircea Sandu said. "I've asked to start getting the necessary documents."

Culio, not content with giving Cluj's fans a night in the Eternal City that will be remembered for eternity, is apparently keen to get a Romanian strip on his back. "I'll accept if the national team's coach needs me," said Culio. Romania went down 3-0 at home in their opening World Cup qualifying match against Lithuania, and Culio might not make it in time to help them out for the South Africa 2010 qualifiers.

Italy drew 2-2 with Romania at Euro 2008, and could do with staying away from Culio and his attributes any time soon. Or any of his teammates, with the Romanian national FA making noises about turning more of them into citizens. At such a rate, Romania could end up forming a United Nations all-star side. Cluj have only half a dozen locals, and employ characters from Brazil, Argentina and Portugal. Their story is not made in Transylvania, but they have swelled local pride with around 1,000 locals getting themselves out and about to celebrate the victory.

Last year, their players celebrated ending 17 years of Bucharest dominance of the league by leaping on to tractors and parading themselves before a steaming set of home fans. The denizens of Cluj and their farming tendencies had every right to take down some livestock and get a good hog spit roast going after this result. Culio started working as bricklayer at the age of 13. He stuck at that for six years before dedicating himself to football and playing for Independiente Buenos Aires in 2005. He joined Cluj from Deportes La Serena of Chile in 2007, a club as unknown around the world as Cluj are renowned in their homeland.

The next step might be to try to reach the 10-point mark that will take them into the knockout phase, but that may yet be too much to contemplate even for a side as unpredictable as Cluj and their have-a-go heroes. The job is not yet half done. As Juan's namesake, the American rap star Coolio, once famously sung: "I'll see you when you get there." @Email:dkane@thenational.ae