What sort of magical spell do these Romanians put on the soccer ball, anyway?
It is one thing for Gheorghe Hagi to bedevil a goalkeeper with a crazy 35-yard lob into the upper-right corner, such as the one that stunned Colombia's Oscar Cordoba in the first World Cup game at the Rose Bowl.
Perhaps even more breathtaking was forward Ilie Dumitrescu's goal in the 11th minute against Argentina on Sunday, a hooking shot off a direct free kick on the left flank from just outside the penalty box. That's the simple description.
Dumitrescu's extraterrestrial shot was spinning and curving wildly--topspin, side-spin and maybe even with backspin too. It didn't fool Argentina's goalkeeper, Luis Islas. Rather, the shot mocked him, curling over his left shoulder into the net's top-right corner.
"I practice a lot in training, the free kick," Dumitrescu says.
What shocked the Argentines was that they were waiting for Hagi to line up on that side, not Dumitrescu. They didn't know that the free kick is one of Dumitrescu's specialties.
"It was my first free kick from the left side--and I scored," he said.
The world had not known much about the feats or feet of Dumitrescu until the second round of this World Cup tournament. He has been a star in Romania, the southeastern European country slightly smaller than Oregon in square miles. But the 25-year-old has escaped greater scrutiny by remaining at home, playing for Steaua Bucharest.
Eight of Romania's starters play outside the country, and Dumitrescu surely will make it nine after the World Cup. He has been quite open about saying he will play in the West and apparently his destination is Italy. Hagi has been playing for Brescia in the Italian league for the last two years and high-scoring teammate Florin Raducioiu was with Brescia before moving to AC Milan.
In a sense, Raducioiu's absence let Dumitrescu emerge. Raducioiu was given two yellow cards in the opening round and was ineligible for the Argentina game. And Dumitrescu said he had not been himself in the first three games, trying to adjust to the time difference and flying to and from Pontiac, Mich., for the loss against Switzerland.
Hagi was not surprised by the way Dumitrescu stepped up against Argentina.
"We showed we are not a team of individuals, but rather a very good whole," Hagi said afterward. "Today Dumitrescu was the star. Tomorrow, it could be somebody else."
Previously, that had been the rap against Romania--too many stars and not enough teamwork. But Hagi and Dumitrescu, playing fast-break soccer, ran the Argentines into the ground and took turns setting each other up for goals after Dumitrescu had opened the scoring on the free kick.
In the second half, it was Dumitrescu showing marvelous vision, turning a two-on-one break into a three-on-two, waiting and holding up in the middle before passing off to the right to Hagi.
"Hagi and I know each other well," Dumitrescu said. "I have been taking passes from Hagi since we played together at Steaua Bucharest."
At Steaua, Dumitrescu made a favorable first impression on the coach, Anghel Iordanescu, who became the Romanian national coach in June, 1993. He not only showed he had superior speed but that he can deliver a solid, accurate shot with either foot. And his passing and dribbling skills fit into the Romanians' often deadly and swift counterattack.
"Mr. Iordanescu had faith in me," Dumitrescu said. "I am happy I did something for the trust he placed in me."
Dumitrescu scored 54 goals in 138 games for Steaua from 1988-93 and more recently scored five in three games during a one-week span with the national team in February. In a warm-up match against the United States in 1993 at Santa Barbara and another game in early 1994, Dumitrescu scored all three of Romania's goals.
All of that was warm-up stuff for Dumitrescu's exploits on the field.
"I think now we are in history," he said.
Dumitrescu and his teammates are still adding chapters. Which is why the players--other than Hagi--have not been making themselves available this week before Sunday's quarterfinal here against Sweden. Romanian team liaison Julian Stanculescu went to Dumitrescu with a faxed list of questions from a reporter.
"He said he loves me very much and would like to help," Stanculescu said. "But he said he cannot do this. He must only think of the game."
So, one must watch Dumitrescu on the field to truly learn about him. But he could become a favorite in America. After all, this was his recent answer when asked his favorite aspect of the United States:
"The way Americans behave," he said.