The Second Game

The Second Game ★★★

I watched Corneliu Porumboiu’s “political football” documentary The Second Game to celebrate the return of competitive football after its enforced Covid hiatus. Having been starved these past months of the joys and frustrations of the beautiful game, it’s fun to be plunged right back into it. And now my beloved Liverpool FC are only two games away from winning the title for the first time in 30 years, and it seems that not even the virus can stop us now!

Porumboiu’s film consists of him chatting away to his dad, Adrian, while they watch a replay of the top of the table Romanian football league game played in 1988 between Steau and Dinamo, both of Bucharest. All we see is the match, played in atrocious conditions with snow and mud making the playing (and the viewing) difficult and adding an element of danger to what is already a fiercely contested derby.

What makes this odd idea intriguing is that Adrian Porumboiu was the referee in the game, and also that the game was played in the year before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu‘s communist regime. So what we get is an ordinary man at the centre of a match between the communist army’s favourite team and the communist police’s favourite team. Both teams were desperate to win, and before the match had tried to influence the result by getting to the referee. But Adrian held onto his professional neutrality, and to his nerve, to safely see out the match in front of a large crowd. 

The film is interesting in bringing into focus the role of the man in the middle. His job it is to allow the game to flow towards a fair result. But he’s just one referee, a simple and fallible man, operating under the hostile scrutiny of the partisan crowds, and also in this case, under the eye of the political apparatus of a brutal regime. The fact that Adrian is a bit up himself at times, is probably, all things considered, well earned. His son recalls receiving a phone call threatening his father’s life if he continued refereeing, but the fact is he did continue, and he survived. And for all that, he’s here, a quarter of a century later, looking back and reflecting on the ephemeral nature of sport (and film) as transient entertainment and questioning why anybody would be interested in watching anything that was played five years ago, let alone twenty five.

I’m not sure if it constitutes a spoiler, but the match ends 0:0, which feels about right for a dour Romanian New Wave film. There can be no winners in this stalemate between two communist backed teams in the last days of the regime. And also, how apt for the long-suffering population to watch a game in the twilight of communism that you can barely see through the snow, played in freezing temperatures, and destined to end without glory.

It’s a hard film to recommend if you don’t like football, but if, like me, you like sitting in front of the box, and chatting away to family and friends while you watch a game, then you’ll feel right at home here. 

C’mon Liverpool.