Damac's Stanciu enjoys "biggest pride" at Euro 2024

When Nicolae Stanciu wraps the captain’s armband around his left bicep before leading Romania out against Slovakia on Wednesday, he will no doubt not let the moment pass him by.

“Being the captain of my country is the biggest pride I could have in my career,” says Stanciu, a standout for Damac in the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League. “To wear the armband for my country, and to once again to be in a major tournament… as a player, if you don't represent your country, your career is not fulfilled.”

Stanciu, 31, has represented Romania with distinction thus far at the UEFA European Championship 2024 Germany. In last week's Group E opener against Ukraine, he struck an early contender for goal of the tournament as his side went on to win 3-0.

Stanciu’s contribution, though, stretched far beyond breaking the deadlock: he was named Player of the Match for his overall effort, one of two RSL stars to collect the award on Matchday One. France and Al Ittihad midfielder N’Golo Kante was the other.

Stanciu, who against Slovakia will win his 73rd cap, is contesting his second Euros after being part of the squad that competed in France in 2016. Back then, Romania exited at the group stage.

This time, the team are perched top of the group heading into the final set of fixtures, although bizarrely all four teams are locked on three points. Victory against Slovakia in Frankfurt, however, will send Romania through.

For sure, Stanciu laid the platform for a successful Euros through an ultimately stellar debut season in Saudi Arabia. Having joined Damac last September from Wuhan Three Towns in China, he was part of the Khamis Mushait outfit who at one point jumped into the upper echelons of the RSL table. Eventually, Damac tailed off in the second half of the campaign, finishing 10th.

“When I first arrived in the middle of September, we were like the last team,” Stanciu recalls. “Or we had only three points, one win after five games. So, we improved a lot. We grew a lot. We were one of the best teams in the first part of the season.

“OK, second part of the season, it's always difficult. We struggled a little bit but were also unlucky in some games. But overall it was a good season for the club and things are going well.

“For sure, next season we will want more but we will have to wait and see because things are changing quickly [in the league]. It depends a lot on what happens [this] summer. But, of course, after you have a season like this, you always want more and for the next season to be even higher.”

Stanciu, who in 2019 spent only six months at Jeddah’s Al Ahli, added: “I feel a lot better than I was five years before when I was in Al Ahli. I really enjoy it here, and honestly, I was surprised by what I found when I first arrived last year.

“The standard is growing, and it has grown a lot. Everything from the conditions each club has for training and so on, the quality of the players, and the intensity in the games has grown a lot.

“Also, you could see that the Saudi national team won against Argentina, and they had a great [FIFA] World Cup [in 2022]. So, you can see the level of the Saudi players alongside those of the foreigners. And the league will just keep getting better and better.”

At Damac, Stanciu has a strong connection to home in manager Cosmin Contra, the 73-time capped Romanian international.

“We have a good relationship,” Stanciu says. “Of course, I knew him because he was a big legend playing for AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and my national team. I knew him, but the first time we met was in my national team, because he was the head coach of Romania, and I was playing for him there.

“But you know, it's not that easy to build a relationship when you are only a week together or a few days when you are with the national team.

“But since he called me and said that he wanted me here, I was very happy, and I thank him because he gave me this opportunity. I really wanted to change league, to leave China, and the fact that he wanted me here and the club wanted me here was a no-brainer for me.

“I am really happy in my relationship with him – it is amazing. I hope we can continue here and do more good things together.”