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Chasing a ghost: The search for Daniel Timofte

Known to so many Irish because of his missed penalty at Italia ’90, the Romanian is an elusive figure.

Image: Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

SOMETIME LAST YEAR, I scribbled down some project ideas on a notepad. When I finished, one stood out. Well, one name. Daniel Timofte. A quick Google search told me he had been an assistant coach at Dinamo Bucharest in 2013 but there was little information on his current whereabouts. Excellent, I thought. A chase.

I touched base with a Romanian journalist Emanuel Rosu and asked a litany of questions. But here’s the thing; in Ireland, Timofte is a cult figure. In Romania, he’s a footnote. Rosu began the search, pestering plenty of football people for his contact details. But he sent me one message: “He’s kept a very low profile, nobody seems to be in touch with him any more”. It proved a fitting early conclusion.

Over a period of weeks, Rosu would provide updates. “Still trying for the man’s number, he seems to have vanished”, read one. “No clues about his current location – we should contact Scooby Doo to help us, it seems”, said another. And what of his legacy in his own country, I asked? Is the penalty miss against Ireland in the 1990 World Cup still talked about, I asked? Rosu’s answer was equal parts blunt and depressing.

Nope. He’s forgotten. Nobody remembers him any more.”

With little in the way of progress, the Timofte idea fell by the wayside. But earlier this year, with the 25th anniversary of Italia ’90 approaching on the horizon, he entered my thoughts again.

And so began another chase.

Packie Bonner saves a penalty to win the match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In early June, there came a breakthrough. I had arrived in Toronto, ahead of the Women’s World Cup, when Rosu sent on Timofte’s phone number. Incredible, I thought. I put together a multitude of questions. Two pages worth. I prepared for an inevitable initial awkwardness and dialled the number.

A man answered.

“Daniel?” I was excited. Finally, I had got hold of the ghost.

“No, no, no”, he replied, almost exhaustedly. It was hard to understand the rest of what he said. But he certainly wasn’t Daniel Timofte. Or, maybe he was. I just didn’t know anymore.

“I’m hoping to speak with Daniel Timofte, I said. I’m not sure if you have a number for him.”

The man mumbled something incoherent. I was about to hang up but he seemed to have some pity and asked me to hold the line while he tried to find contact details for Timofte. He returned and was true to his word. I was a little surprised. I had braced myself for more disappointment. Feeling he and I had just bonded a bit, I probed him for more details.

“What’s Daniel doing now?” I asked. “Is he still involved in coaching?”

The man was irritated. “I don’t know, I don’t know.” Sensing our bond was now a distant memory, I said goodbye. I got what I was after.

Packie Bonner and David O'Leary before the penalty shootout in Genoa Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The following day, I dialled the number. Armed with my litany of questions, again. It all felt a little too familiar. And that feeling only increased when the call connected.

A man’s voice answered.

“Hi, Daniel?”

There was a grumble.

“I’m looking to speak with Daniel Timofte”, I said.

“Who is this?” The tone was tiresome, weary, very suspicious.

I introduced myself and asked if he had a few minutes to chat. I still hadn’t confirmed it actually was Timofte but I just started talking anyway, trying desperately to build a bridge. I offered a few platitudes – ‘It’s fantastic to speak with you’, etc. There was nothing at the other end except heavy breathing and the odd grunt. I asked my first question – a gentle, vague, boring question.

“What are your memories of the tournament?”

And then the line went dead.

I was immensely frustrated. I knew he was reluctant to talk, that was obvious. But I was more frustrated with myself for not being able to tease something out of him. Like that famous scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, furiously berates a posse of under-performing, coasting, real-estate agents.

“A-B-C. ‘A’ – always, ‘B’ – be, ‘C’ – closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!! A-I-D-A. Attention, interest, decision, action. Attention – do I have your attention? Interest – are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks! Decision – have you made your decision for Christ?!! And action. A-I-D-A; get out there!! You got the prospects comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain? Guy doesn’t walk on the lot unless he wants to buy. Sitting out there waiting to give you their money! Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?”

Republic of Ireland 1990 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Timofte could’ve cut me off. Instead, he allowed me to speak and say my piece. Maybe it wasn’t impressive enough. And that’s what was frustrating. And I wasn’t sure if I’d get another chance to talk.

And then I arrived in Ottawa. And I got stuck into the Women’s World Cup, travelling lots and piecing together various stories.

I had messaged Rosu to tell him of the weirdness of it all. About the strange man who I initially thought was Timofte but who wasn’t. And Timofte himself, who seemed so annoyed and antagonised by me and my questions. Or maybe he seemed so annoyed and antagonised because I had found him.

And then, one morning, Rosu got in touch. He had phoned Timofte himself. And Timofte explained his mobile had been acting up and that I should call him again to talk. But that I had to do it soon.

So, as a matter of urgency, I took my phone and my recording device and my trusty two pages of questions. And I dialled the number again. He answered again. I asked him how he was was. He said fine. Then I asked him about Italia ’90.

“No, no, no. I don’t want to talk about this.”

I pleaded with him to no avail. And then he hung up.

And ever since, I’ve wondered why. He’s talked about the kick before, to others. He’s laughed at how he made Packie Bonner a star, how he bought a bar in his hometown of Petrosani and called it ‘Penalty’, how he played in Dublin shortly after the World Cup in a European tie against St. Pat’s, how the smart-aleck locals thanked him for his immense contribution to the nation’s cause in Italy.

General View of the Irish team 1990 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And I wondered why there was little of that for me. Why I got the dodgy numbers and the excuses and the disinterest. That awful, dehumanising feeling of self-pity. There’s nothing worse. And then I realised.

Timofte’s biggest moment in his career – the flash of colour in a largely grey landscape – was an error. And that even for the most stubborn person, such a memory can be nothing else than permanently scarring. No athlete grows up wanting to be remembered for a mistake. In his own country, if anyone remembers him at all, it’s because of the missed penalty. In Ireland, it’s all we have to go on.

And as I sat in silence in a room, having failed to land anything from a guy I’d chased for a long time, I realised something else. That maybe the Timofte I experienced was the real one – the guy who wants nothing to do with silly journalists and their stupid, irrelevant questions. That guy who wants to forget a trauma, not discuss it openly with perfect strangers at the drop of a hat. Maybe the guy who opens the bar called Penalty and jokes about that fateful evening in Genoa is a little bit of make-believe. Maybe it’s Timofte’s way of dealing with it all.

And that’s perfectly okay.

A firm handshake to Emanuel Rosu for his tireless assistance with this article. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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