He is the darling of the moment, but fame could have come a lot earlier for Cosmin Moti. At the age of 29, the name of the previously little-known Romanian defender is on everyone's lips after he saved two penalty kicks in a shootout and helped his team, tiny Ludogorets Razgrad, qualify for the Champions League group stage at the expense of Steaua Bucharest. Now he is in Liverpool, waiting impatiently for the biggest game of his career at Anfield. It will be difficult for him not to think of his previous visit to the city.
Back in 2005, just a couple months after he moved from his first club Universitatea Craiova to Dinamo Bucharest, he got to play against Everton in the UEFA Cup. The first leg in Romania was absolutely sensational, with Moti stopping the aerial threat of Tim Cahill and Marcus Bent while his teammates ran riot at the other end. Dinamo won 5-1 on one of David Moyes' most painful evenings, which rendered the return leg at Goodison Park virtually meaningless. Moti went there to enjoy himself and did so even though Cahill found the net in a 1-0 win.
Everton were fairly impressed with what they saw. So were Levski Sofia, who faced Dinamo in the group stage that year. Moti might have made a silly mistake that led to a crucial goal and a defeat, but the Bulgarians wanted to sign him nevertheless. Dinamo demanded two million euros for their rising star -- way too much for Levski -- but his value only continued to rise during the next years.
In 2007, Moti was one of the most important players when Dinamo won their latest league title by famously beating Steaua 4-2 away on their way to triumph. Half a year later, left-back Stefan Radu moved to Lazio and was very influential in the club's decision to pursue the purchase of his friend as well. "Moti is a complete player who can be very successful in Serie A. It is an inspired move by Lazio to choose him," Radu said at the time.
The Roman club wanted to build their defence around Moti, while Feyenoord and -- you guessed it -- Everton were also in the race. Negotiations with the Italians were at a very advanced stage, and the player himself was packing his bags. "I hope Dinamo will understand me and let me go," he said, but he ended up disappointed, as coach Mircea Rednic made it crystal clear he didn't want to lose his best defender. The club demanded more than six million euros for their star.
The move fell through, but to appease Moti, a loan move to Siena was somewhat hastily arranged. That's where it all started to go wrong for the rising star. Moti didn't see eye-to-eye with coach Marco Giampaolo, never got an opportunity at the team that was remarkably sound defensively without him and was promptly sent back at the end of the loan and denounced as not being tactically ready for Serie A.
"It was a mistake to give up so easily, but I wanted to return home to Dinamo," Moti later said.
No interest in him was reported thereafter, he was no longer called into the national team, and Dinamo were not fighting for the title anymore. To make matters worse, his lifestyle was constantly criticized in the press. Not only was the defender accused of partying too much, but his smoking habits were also exposed by Dinamo legend Cornel Dinu.
"Moti is a great guy, but he smokes three packs a day. He practically breathes nicotine, not oxygen," Dinu said.
That amount was significantly reduced as years went by, but not enough. In an interview with Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor in 2012, Moti claimed: "I only smoke seven or eight cigarettes a day. That doesn't have any effect on my performances on the pitch. I am not addicted -- it's just a habit."
Eventually, Ludogorets signed him for just 400,000 euros two years ago, a sum so small Dinamo must have regretted not accepting bigger offers at the right time. For the Bulgarian champions, though, the deal was absolutely perfect. Moti became their highest paid star, and his performances at the heart of the defence convinced local fans immediately.
This past season, he was finally lucky enough to play at Stadio Olimpico in Rome -- a date with Lazio in the Europa League round of 32, in which he sensationally helped his team keep a clean sheet in a 1-0 win -- Ludogorets completed the feat by getting a 3-3 draw in the return leg in Bulgaria. And now, finally, he has fulfilled a longtime dream of playing in the Champions League, and in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
For a former Dinamo star, facing Steaua was already an emotional tie. Ahead of the first leg in Bucharest, Moti asked his former fans to come and support Ludogorets against their hated city rivals. The Romanians won 1-0, but in the return leg, Razgrad managed to equalize in the last minute. Then, after keeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off for a professional foul, it was Moti's date with destiny. He scored the first penalty himself, then went on to produce two stunning saves to make headlines around the globe. Even Gazzetta dello Sport wrote, in reference to his time at Siena, "We had a hero at home and didn't know it."
For those who know Moti closely, the surprise was milder. He liked to put on the gloves after training sessions in his days with Dinamo and fool around saving penalties with his close friend, goalkeeper Emilian Dolha. They made bets with drinks; Moti usually lost, but that practice was certainly worth it. Rednic, the coach who refused to sell him to Lazio, remarked the past week: "Cosmin is very good at interception. That's what made him such a good defender, and such intuition helped him stop the penalties against Steaua."
Now Razgrad is crazy about their superstar. Team owner Kiril Domuschiev promised to name a stand at the club's new stadium in his honour. Local restaurants are naming dishes after him; there were also reports of a newborn child named Cosmin, even though it's not a Bulgarian name. Elena Gospodinova, leader of the Ludogorets fan movement called Green Ladies, tattooed the word "eMOTIon" on her wrist. However, all the fuss might actually make it clearer to Moti that he missed out on what could be a much more eventful career.
On Tuesday, he gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on the big stage -- and get all the attention as a defender, not a stand-in keeper. Nine years after the great success against Everton, he is about to face Liverpool. The mission is clear: He must stop the Reds just like he did the Toffees back then. He cannot concede any penalties, either. He won't be between the posts to save them.