Italia 90: Daniel Timofte tells Packie Bonner how he made him a superstar
Graham Clifford travels to Bucharest to meet Daniel Timofte, the man who missed that kick in Genoa and is still paying the penalty
'I made you a superstar," jokes Dani Timofte as Packie Bonner chuckles on the other end of the telephone line.
The two men, whose lives became forever intertwined after Bonner palmed away Timofte's weak penalty in Genoa 25 years ago this month, have never spoken to each other… until now.
In the lobby of a dated hotel in downtown Bucharest, hero and villain recall the moments before fate - and David O'Leary, who converted the subsequent spot kick - dictated the Republic of Ireland would march on to the World Cup quarter-final in Rome and Romania would return home to an angry waiting public. While one nation held its breath, the other sharpened its knives.
Having tracked down Timofte, I asked Packie if he'd like to chat with the former Romanian midfielder over the telephone and he was eager to do so. Timofte tells the legendary Irish shot-stopper about what was going through his mind as he stepped up to take that vital kick.
"I wanted to hit it right down the middle like I always did with penalties but a teammate told me that you were having trouble diving, that you stay in the centre of the goals and he changed my mind. It was a big mistake," says the 47-year-old, who is unrecognisable from that trim slip of a young lad I remember from Italia 90.
Intriguingly, Timofte told his old adversary that Tony Cascarino had a lot to do with the penalty miss.
"I had bad luck, Cascarino took the penalty before me. When he kicked the ball, he took a part of the pitch on the penalty spot with it. So I put the ball in that hole for my kick. And then I faced this wall of green fans behind the goals, that sight stays with me, green everywhere," says Timofte.
He tells Bonner that he now owns a bar in his home town of Petrosani that he called 'Penalty' and Packie mentions a friend of his in Donegal has a boat called 'Timofte'.
Before the phone line goes dead, Packie tells the former footballer: "I'm sorry I saved the penalty, Daniel. It changed my life (for the better) but I hope it didn't change your life for the worse. I wish you well and hope life is good for you, it was great to speak to you at last."
Bonner's words are heartfelt - but the reality is that life after that penalty miss has been less than kind to Timofte, who is still clearly troubled by the events of June 25, 1990.
"I never talk about it. I have never watched the footage of the penalty. When I came home people would point and say: 'Hey, aren't you the one who missed that penalty'. I would get phone calls in the middle of the night from people attacking me. I would say, 'anyone can miss a penalty', but still the calls came," explains Timofte over a beer.
"And so when I opened my bar, I called it 'Penalty' so I could say f**k you to those who kept bringing it up. I wanted to show them that I was over it, that they would not win."
However, the fact is that Timofte is not over it. His large, round face contorts when I ask about his short run up and what could have been had Bonner dived left instead of right.
Just six months before the World Cup, Communist Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been overthrown in a bloody revolution and he was executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. The transition to democracy was slow and unwieldy but elated Romanians believed the national football side would thrive in Italy and they expected them to return with the golden trophy.
Romania shocked former colonisers Russia in a grudge match in the group stages and hopes of World Cup glory grew at home, before Packie Bonner intervened.
Timofte enjoyed a decent playing career in the decade after Italia 90, including a six-year spell with Samsunspor in Turkey where he earned legendary status. "I am still on their all-time dream team," he says.
He also had one season in the Bundesliga with Bayer Uerdingen, but a persistent knee injury robbed him of a chance of international redemption.
"I played in the qualifiers for the World Cup in 1994 but at the last minute an injury meant I wasn't chosen for the squad to go to the US. I even had visa clearance and my passport ready but I was left behind," he says.
Romania would reach the last eight and players such as attacking midfielder Gheorghe Hagi would earn millions on the back of that success. Dani watched on from his sitting room.
Struggling to keep his weight down, he eventually retired in 2000 and opened his two bars in Petrosani - a former mining town in the Jiu Valley in central Romania.
He has coached some minor sides and last year was assistant manager at the Petrolul Ploiesti club, which finished third in the Romanian first division. Finally things were looking up, but lady luck deserted Dani again.
"The club had major financial problems and so I left. They still owe me money but I don't know if I will ever get it," he says.
There's talk of Timofte going to Qatar to coach and he says he'd jump at the chance. "The manager of a club rang me to see if I am interested but there is nothing definite yet."
On the streets of Bucharest few locals remember Timofte. Two middle-aged men waiting for a bus look at each other when asked and then one says: "Oh yes, he missed the penalty." An elderly Dinamo Bucharest supporter has warmer memories. "Timofte was a genius. He was different to the others. If only he didn't get injured, he could have been as big as Hagi," he tells me, pulling on his cigarette.
'If only' crops up a lot in the career of this gentle giant. If only he hadn't listened to his teammate and aimed for the centre of the goals that day in Genoa; if only his right knee hadn't failed him before the 1994 World Cup; if only his last club had avoided financial ruin.
His beer glass empty, Timofte shakes my hand and as he leaves, saying: "Now I will never talk of the penalty again, it's done, it's over. I think I can forget about it now, I hope I can."