The Arizona Republic – April 6, 2007
CHISINAU, Moldova –On a cold and rainy Saturday night, I arrived at Zimbru Stadium more than an hour before the start of a EURO 2008 qualifying game between the national soccer teams of Moldova and Malta.
I wanted plenty of time to check out the capital city’s newest and swankiest sporting venue, which was christened less than a year ago.
As I walked around the perimeter of the 11,000-seat facility, I noticed something was missing. There was no parking lot.
Moldova is one of Europe’s poorest countries and the average salary is about $100 a month. Few people can afford their own cars. So most of the soccer fans arrived at the stadium the same way I did – by bus. A parking lot would have been wasted space.
I also noticed another difference as I priced items for sale at the concession stands. A 16-ounce cup of beer cost only 13 Moldovan lei (about $1). A bag of peanuts cost about a quarter. Prices weren’t much higher than what you would pay at any supermarket in town.
Moldova, which used to be a part of the Soviet Union, has been an independent country for only 16 years. Apparently, Moldovans still have a lot to learn about something American stadiums have been excelling at for decades – price-gouging.
I headed to my seat. The stadium was starting to fill and the teams were warming up on the field. It was almost dark but they still hadn’t turned on the stadium lights. The players clustered into one of the corners of the field, where there was a bit of light streaming in from the concourse. They could barely see what they were doing.
Budgets are tight in Moldova and it’s not cheap to power stadium lights. Turning them on before the game actually starts is considered an unnecessary luxury.
Finally, it was game time. The lights came on and the public address announcer greeted the crowd, first in Romanian, Moldova’s native language, and then in English.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemens,” he said.
Okay, his English needed some work, but it was nice of him to make the effort.
Eastern Europeans tend to be reserved, even a bit stoic at times, and I expected the crowd of about 10,000 fans to sit on their hands and show little emotion. Boy, was I wrong.
The crowd was enthusiastic and loud from the opening kickoff, chanting “hai (go) Moldova,” waving flags and erupting anytime Moldova threatened to score. They also tried the wave, but like the announcer’s English, they could use some more practice.
A group of seven young men even spent the whole game without their shirts on, baring the 40-degree temperatures to proudly display painted chests spelling M-O-L-D-O-V-A.
Moldova isn’t exactly a soccer powerhouse and its fans don’t have unrealistic expectations. When the team scored a late goal to earn a 1-1 tie, I never thought 10,000 people could make so much noise.
I found myself yelling along with everyone else. Moldova is the quintessential lovable underdog. Its economy is in bad shape and without much money, it’s difficult to field competitive sports teams.
The budget to build Zimbru Stadium was only $11 million, well less than Randy Johnson will earn to pitch for the Diamondbacks this season.
But the people – like the national soccer team – work hard for little compensation and seldom complain about it.
As I waited outside the stadium for my bus home, I joined the chants of those waiting alongside me: “Hai Moldova!”