There's a saying in Romania: "Everyone is good at football and politics." However, judging from the current state of both Romanian football and politics, it would be safe to swap out "good at" for "cursed by".
For the past three decades, our only political success has come from overthrowing a dictator and joining the EU and NATO. But there was a brief moment in time when the football gods were more lenient. For three consecutive World Cups – Italy '90, USA '94 and France '98 – the Romanian national team stood anthem to anthem with the world's best. Our local press even started referring to our side as the "The Golden Generation". And it doesn't even matter that the best we did across all three tournaments was a trip to California to play Sweden, where we were just one penalty kick away from a semi-final spot. What really mattered was that we were invited to the party at all.
That era was lead by captain Gheorghe Hagi. One of only 15 players in history to play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, Hagi was one of the world's most exciting attacking midfielders. Though he wasn't quite in the same league as his more famous contemporaries – Zidane, Baggio, OG Ronaldo – he was a giant back home, whose unpredictability made him and our national team a joy to watch. Some even dubbed him the "Maradona of the Carpathians". Ask the right guy in the right bar, and he'll tell you Hagi was even better than the Argentine.
Aside from Hagi, the Romania team of the 1990s also included a legion of sacred names which, all these years later, are still more famous back home than anyone currently wearing our famously bright yellow shirts. That's because no squad since has come close to making us as happy as they did. Russia 2018 will mark the 20th anniversary of Romania's last journey to the World Cup finals.
That France '98 team made it to the Last 16 before being knocked out by the tournament's top-scorer, Davor Suker, and the rest of his Croatian side. But the most iconic moment of that tournament had happened five days earlier. After confirming their place in the second round, with wins over Colombia and England, and with one group game to spare, feeling confident, the entire team bleached their hair.
Of course, it was meant to inspire a sense of team spirit, but if you ask then-national team coach, Anghel Iordănescu, an entirely different sort of spirit was roused. "We've angered God," Iordănescu told the press after the team drew the last group games against Tunisia, before being knocked out by Croatia. "At a strategy meeting two days before our first game against Colombia, we asked Mr Iordănescu if he'd be willing to shave his head if we qualified after two matches," former international Andrian Ilie tells me. "And when he agreed, we decided that if he actually went through with it, we'd dye ours, too. But first we had to beat Colombia and England."
And that's exactly what happened, with Ilie scoring the winner against Colombia. "After we beat England, we made the manager cut his hair," IIie adds. "Then it was our turn to keep our promise. At first, some players said they wouldn't do it, but we eventually all agreed that we would get it done as a team. So we had the guys at the hotel find us two local hairdressers, who bleached everyone's hair the evening before we played Tunisia."
The operation was so top secret, the players didn't even tell their families. "We did it after our final training session. Nobody saw us," says Ilie. "The people at the hotel thought we were a different team when we came back. Our families were in complete shock."
In an interview he gave eight years ago, striker Gheorghe Craioveanu remembered the bleach burning his scalp and causing bald patches to appear all over his head. "They butchered us," he said. "It was so painful, I could only sleep on one side of my body for about three days. I think something strange happened after the hairdresser wrapped a bit of foil around our heads."
"I was lucky, because I had short hair at the time, so it didn't look that bad," Illie laughs. "But looking around at the guys with longer hair – like Lăcătuș or Ilie Dumitrescu – that weird yellow colour just didn't look right on them. I kept my hair like that for a while after the tournament, until it grew back to normal pretty quickly."
The decision wasn't only tough on some of the players, but also on the commentators tasked with telling them apart.
"You couldn't really tell who was who on the pitch," says Emil Grădinescu, who commentated on France '98 for Romania's national television station. "I'd heard a rumour that the players had decided to dye their hair, but I didn't actually believe it. At worse, I thought maybe a few of them had gotten highlights. So you can imagine my shock when we saw 11 blond heads bob out of the dressing room. Foreign commentators kept coming up to ask me what was going on, but I had no idea."
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Like Iordănescu, Grădinescu feels the decision made the team worse, but for less divine reasons.
"In terms of motivation, it was a bad idea that was badly executed," he tells me. "The players had slipped into this relaxed, holiday-like mood. We were lucky to draw against Tunisia – that's how badly we played. Then we embarrassed ourselves against Croatia."
It's definitely possible that complacency was what led to the team collectively bleaching their hair; even the great Michel Platini warned future Romanian sides not to copy the '98 squad if they ever wanted to be successful again.
However, the sad thing is that while we never did bleach our hair again, we also haven't achieved anything since. Meanwhile, our fans have continued to cheer on bad squads and stoically accept our role in football folklore: the nation whose team dyed their hair and killed our World Cup hopes in the process.