The Staggering Decline of Romanian Football
We took part in the inaugural World Cup. Our best performance at a World Cup was reaching the quarterfinal, after knocking out Argentina. We also reached the quarterfinal at the European Championships, coming out of a group containing Germany, Portugal and England. Our club sides reached the finals of the Champions League and Europa League, winning the European Cup on one occasion.
Players from our country have played for the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid and one of our managers even coached the Total Football side of Ajax. Which country comes to mind? Belgium? Switzerland? Austria? Maybe Yugoslavia, or one of its successor countries. Nope, you are wrong. Dead wrong. It is in fact Romania. What follows is a quick trip down memory lane, examining the many highs and recent lows experienced by this wonderful sport in my home country.
As the 20th century rolled around, football was increasing its appeal across the continents, with Romania being no exception. Popularized by English and American workers contracted primarily in the country’s oil industry, one of the first club sides founded was United Ploiesti in 1909, a few decades separating them from the more esteemed sides also called “United” in England. In the following decades, regional championships gave the country the best teams, which faced off in a playoff to decide the champions. Later, this model was dropped in favor of a cup system.
After the First World War, not only did Romania grow in landmass, its appetite for football grew as well. The interwar years are still seen by some as a golden age in our country: Romania reached its largest size, with a royal house that had ties to other esteemed European royal families. We were no longer an afterthought, but a serious player on the European stage.
In terms of playing football, the first game of the newly founded Romanian National Team was a success, winning 2-1 against the Yugoslavs in their own capital. With the formation of the new World Cup, whilst more established European sides declined the invitation, Romania, alongside Belgium, France and Yugoslavia, travelled to Uruguay. The team also started their World Cup story with a win: 3-1 against Peru. Sadly, they were no match for eventual winners Uruguay, losing the following game 4-0.
At the next two World Cups, the team was eliminated in the first round by Czechoslovakia in 1934 and Cuba in 1938, which was seen as a major upset at the time. With their three consecutive participations at the first three editions, Romania joined Brazil, France and Belgium as the only four national teams to take part in all of the World Cup tournaments at the time.
On the internal front, the league saw the rise of teams from the newly acquired Transylvania region, with Timisoara becoming a footballing powerhouse, alongside the capital. The future was looking bright, surely the world had learned its lessons from the Great War and no such calamities would ever occur again.
From Darkness into the Spotlight
As the 1930s were ending, sports and the communion between nations it was supposed to bring, gave way to radical political movements and the earliest forms of sportswashing. An insane Austrian with a silly mustache and a fat man from Italy used the World Cup and the Olympics as propaganda tools. What followed were death and destruction on a scale never seen before, no Christmas truces and football matches in no-man’s land, just devastation.
In Romania, the rise of fascism ensured the country entered on the losing side of the war, later joining the Allies, as the outcome became more and more obvious. The King was briefly reinstated, but Joseph Stalin had other plans. The man had paid for all of Eastern Europe with the blood of his soldiers, and wanted what was promised to him at the Yalta conference. Thus sport, and football in particular became part of the state apparatus. It was seen both as a means of improving the nation’s prestige and as a means for ordinary people to gain fame and upward mobility in a closed society.
The period from 1945 to 1970 was a period of transition from a liberalized form of sport to a state-owned one. The clubs, that had been until then the main competitors internally, gave way to state-owned clubs, assigned to branches like the police or the armed forces, or clubs based around the country’s industries. At first, this did not translate to success, as Romanian clubs were regularly eliminated from European competitions in the first rounds and the national team did not qualify for the World Cup and the Euros.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s a new wave of strikers appeared, that dazzled on the internal and external stages. Most notable among those was Nicolae Dobrin, making his debut at 14. He and his team Arges Pitesti stunned the world, beating Real Madrid at home, which prompted Santiago Bernabeu to lodge a bid for him.
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As all the clubs were technically state-owned, the decision came to the head honcho himself, Nicolae Ceausescu. Bernabeu begged and pleaded, offering around 2 million dollars and a new floodlight system, but the dictator did not want to sell his most prized asset to a club that had links to Franco.
The 1970s brought a new upward trajectory to the Romanian National Team, qualifying for the 1970 World Cup. Drawn in a tough group, they lost to England and won against Czechoslovakia, lining up a decider against Pele’s Brazil. Brazil’s magic was partially neutralized by the Romanians, managing to pull the score back to 2-1, but in the end a 3-2 performance saw the Brazilians go through.
After that, a dry spell followed with the national team appearing at a major tournament only in 1984 for the Euros and 1990 for the World Cup. The internal championship saw the rise of teams like Dinamo Bucharest, Steaua Bucharest and Universitatea Craiova. Despite having the likes of Dudu Georgescu, a two time European Golden Shoe winner, Romanian teams did not see much success in the European club competitions.
The Golden Years and Golden Teams
From the 1980s onwards, Romanian football saw arguably its greatest successes. First came the club sides, which gradually climbed up the ladder of the European Cup. In 1981-82 Universitatea Craiova reached the quarter finals, in 1983-84 Dinamo reached the semifinals and then came Steaua.
The team that not many people outside Romania had heard of stunned Barcelona, winning the European Cup against them in Seville in 1985-86, followed by a semifinal in 1987-88 and another final in 1988-89. As for the national team, it took a little longer to get going. The 1984 Euros was the first major tournament of the side, after a long absence. Drawn in a group with Spain, Germany and Portugal, they only managed a draw against Spain.
The new decade of the ’90s began with Romania at the World Cup, with an entirely domestic-based football team. Communism had just fallen and everybody wanted to show what they could do on the international stage. The first World Cup group stage after a long absence went brilliantly. Winning against the Soviets, they fell victim to Roger Milla’s Cameroon, before holding on to a draw against Argentina. In the next round though, Jack Charlton’s Ireland went through on penalties.
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The finest hour of Romanian football on an international stage came in 1994. The world was introduced to brilliant players like Gheorge Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu, as the team defeated hosts USA and Columbia to reach the first knockout tie against Argentina. Maradona had been sent home because of his drug abuse and without him, Argentina succumbed to a 3-2 defeat. Sadly, the fairytale ended in the quarterfinals against Sweden, in a penalty shootout.
The millennium ended with Romania taking part in the 1996 Euros and losing all three games, but reaching the Round of 16 at the 1998 World Cup, beating England in the groups. The swansong of the Romanian National Team on the international stage came at the 2000 Euros. There, after drawing with Germany and defeating England in the group stage, Italy knocked them out in the quarterfinals.
Hope for the New Millennium
The turmoil of the 90s was replaced by the optimism of a new millennium, bringing with it a possible admission into the EU and better chances for everyone. What people failed to realize, was that in the years following the collapse of the communist regime, a series of shady individuals gobbled up and divided the country’s most profitable assets amongst themselves. Thus, similar to Russia, a new quasi-oligarchical system was born where corruption and nepotism was rife.
This of course extended to football. Most major clubs were acquired by people with multiple open court cases and millions of dollars in the bank. Most notorious was the Becali family, whose members bought the country’s most successful club Steaua and represented the country’s most talented footballers. These footballers now turned west, like many of their compatriots, in search for a better career.
Some fared better, like Cristian Chivu at Inter, some not so well, like Adrian Mutu, who buried his head in mountains of cocaine. As the country experienced some form of wealth and the club owners had funds to pour into their clubs, the level of football stayed somewhat afloat.
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Romanian teams had some success on the European stage, with Steaua reaching the semifinal of the UEFA Cup in the 2005-06 season. From there it was downhill. The financial crisis and increased scrutiny from the authorities meant that the wannabe mafiosos in charge of Romanian clubs either lost enough money or were convicted. Thus, many historically successful clubs fell on hard times and were declared bankrupt, dissolved, reformed or split between owners and fans.
A brief renaissance was experienced in the early 2010s but any minor success seemed brought about almost by mistake or by sheer dumb luck. Dinamo Bucharest now play in the second division and Universitatea Craiova is split between two clubs, each maintaining that they are the true heir. Meanwhile the country’s most successful club, Steaua is split as well, between FCSB, owned by Gheorghe Becali, a notorious anti-Semite, homophobe and convicted criminal and the reformed CSA Steaua Bucharest owned by the army.
This absolute nightmare has translated, of course, to the national team, who managed to qualify for the 2008 Euros and the 2018 Euros. The 2008 tournament saw some of the last great Romanian players almost make it out of a group containing France, Italy and the Netherlands and in 2016, two losses and a draw saw the team sink to a new low. However, it would be a temporary low, since a much bigger one was to come.
Now, as the World Cup in Qatar is unfolding, I find myself supporting other nations and in the regular seasons, other clubs, than those of my home country. The last generations of coaches, scouts and managers, formed in the communist system, that still had the ethos of sports integrity is now gone. They were remnants of the system, which, albeit faulty, valued excellence and performance without financial interest. Now, apart from Gheorghe Hagi trying to implement a more western approach to club management, everything else is too little, too late.
Almost every club is mired in corruption, in debt, or has their fortunes tied to a criminal waiting for his next conviction. Our players have lost their values, choosing cars and haircuts over sporting integrity and whilst their dreams might still be, to one day be playing for Real Madrid, usually they don’t cut it abroad and end up wasting their careers in the Gulf states.
This World Cup has had some amazing upsets and the future of football is a bright one in my opinion. Whilst the super-rich try to treat it like their playground, smaller sides (both club and national) prove time and time again that they can outsmart the big boys. With a few investments in facilities and data analysis, clubs can scout future stars discarded and overlooked by superclubs.
Similarly, nations that were considered “small” in footballing terms are finding new success, with a more professional and data-driven approach. Meanwhile, Romania still uses word-of-mouth scouting, and almost all players feel like they have been found out my mistake.
Sports betting seems to be the new national sport, as the league, and in fact most clubs, are sponsored by betting companies and sometimes the halftime adverts are more interesting than the games themselves. I was going to write a section detailing the future, but that would be too depressing. At this point, our best chance is Red Bull buying my hometown club. Imagine telling this to a German football fan.
By: Eduard Holdis / @__He___
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mark Leech / Offside