When Ion Testemitanu played for the then young nation of Moldova against England in Chisinau in 1996, he could have had no idea it would lead to a move to Bristol City, an incident in which all his clothes were stolen by his team-mates and his life being dramatised in a British film.
Now retired and the current assistant to Moldova coach Ion Caras, Testemitanu, also known as Ivan, has the distinction of being the only Moldovan to have played football in England. He was signed by Bristol City having been scouted by Tony Fawthrop in the World Cup qualifier against England – famously David Beckham's debut and less well-known for the fact that Testemitanu missed a penalty.
A versatile midfielder in his time, Testemitanu, 38, has seen Moldova's development from a football nation who played their first game independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 to a country that, despite their lowly Fifa ranking of 141, have tried to develop their players. "Against England they will want to show these players what they can do," he said yesterday. "Maybe after the game your players will know them. They will remember the names."
Testemitanu was playing for Zimbru Chisinau when he faced England 16 years ago and came to Bristol City's attention. Having come for a trial, but not offered a contract, a goal in a 2-2 draw with Northern Ireland in 1998 persuaded City to sign him. On his first day at the club, his City team-mates were so incredulous at his Eastern Bloc clothes that they took them while he trained and told him they had sold them. He had literally nothing to wear.
"When I came first time to Bristol, they laughed at how I was dressed. They said I looked like a sailor. They thought I come from the past. They had Hugo Boss, Armani, Dolce and Gabbana. It was a very hard time."
It was a story Testemitanu played for laughs but there was a sadness about him too – "you're smiling but, for me, it was a very hard time". It was certainly a depressing reminder of the occasional brainlessness peculiar to the dressing rooms of English football clubs. Fortunately Fawthrop took pity on him, gave him a tracksuit to wear and took him clothes shopping with money advanced from his salary. For all that, Testemitanu has very fond memories of his time in England where, among others, he became friends with Tony Pulis who was appointed manager at Bristol City during that time. Testemitanu did part of his Uefa B licence at Stoke City.
"Tony helped me learn how to be a good coach," he said. Would Moldova be playing in a similar fashion to Stoke? "I think we are a little bit better. No long throws. We play by feet and not with hands."
Testemitanu was also one of the players who features in the book Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, now also a film, written by British comedian Tony Hawks. It chronicles the genuine story of Hawks' attempts to track down every one of the Moldovan players from the 1996 match and challenge them to a game of tennis, a story that began with a bet he made with a friend.
"Tony is a funny man," Testemitanu said. "The book was an accurate picture of life in Moldova at the time, in the mid-1990s. The film [released this year] is not how it is in Moldova now. He is showing history. We have become much better. Our life is a lot better than before."
As for the current Moldova team, they have many players who play in the Russian premier league, including captain Alexandru Epureanu and his fellow centre-half Igor Armas, the latter of whom said yesterday his team "were not playing England for the autographs". They are believed to be on €3,000 each for a win, €1,000 for a draw from their football federation but, as Testemitanu said, money is not their key motivation tonight.