The Unpredictable History of Romanian Football

As some of their Balkan cousins are packing their beachwear for Brazil in under 100 days, Romania remains firmly out in the cold. Despite finishing second in their group and missing out in a playoff against Greece, they finished nine points behind group leaders the Netherlands.

Not that expectation was high; with the country not playing in a major finals tournament since 1998 the national game has fallen down the list of priorities as the domestic game and authorities are found to be among the most corrupt in the world. The promising early rise of football, a huge period of wilderness where potential superstars were kept under wraps and a national golden era post-Communism make up the rich and fading memories of Romanian football.

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Established in Bucharest in 1909 the Romanian Football Federation would employ a relaxed work ethic that only saw the first official international match played in 1922, a 2-1 away win against Yugoslavia in Belgrade. The nation’s passion for the game was limited until the introduction of King Carol II in 1930.

Having barely been on the throne a month the King enlisted his best administrative team to take on the mammoth task of bureaucracy that surrounded a FIFA World Cup finals entry for Uruguay 1930. To the surprise of most, Romania was accepted and was on the boat to the first finals. With the tact of a bulldozer the King even threatened an English oil company owner that employed a host of his star players and coerced him into giving three months paid leave.

His meddling didn’t stop there. As the team’s vessel took them across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and with his tracksuit packed amongst his vast belongings, the King watched on as the team’s manager utilised the ship’s deck for gruelling training regimes.

Once a ball was introduced into the sessions the King was down on the deck in a flash and heavily involved in the drills. His passion for the game may well have come through his bloodline; his parents were born in footballing heartlands of Germany and England and his efforts would have an effect still felt today.

Romania would return having won against Peru, but losing 4-0 to the eventual group winners, champions and hosts Uruguay, a game that sealed their exit. Their first experience would be just a taste and they were back soon after for more, qualifying for the 1934 World Cup but ducked out early to Czechoslovakia.

Back they came again fighting in 1938, and with a slice of luck qualifying due to Egypt’s exit, the nation was left bewildered as they bowed out to Cuba, one of the weakest teams on the international stage. The major positive to come out of this decade was that they are some of only four teams to play at the first three World Cups, along with France, Belgium and Brazil.

Just when they needed to experience more varied international opponents to progress further the team would spend the 1940s playing a handful of games a year at most, mainly against teams in their region of Europe. In the international team’s obscure age there were key developments on the domestic scene.

In 1947 Steaua Bucharest, were formed under the direction of the State Romanian Army. Their impact was felt hard and fast as they took a Romanian Cup in 1949 and then dominated the 1950s with five league titles. Leading their defensive line was one of the most talented and unsung heroes of Romanian football, sweeper Alexandru Apolzan. Blessed with a superb football brain it is argued that he was the inventor of the ‘sweeper’ position or ‘libero’ role as it was later coined.

With the nation kept hidden from the rest of the world under communist rule, few realised this revelation and normally attribute the position to Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer later in the 1960s. Apolzan would win six titles for Steaua and was voted Rapid Bucharest’s greatest ever player, the team he started his career at.

Perhaps with the help of their State connections, the Steaua team formed the whole national squad of Romania in 1956 and even toured England playing top teams of the day. With a pattern following that of the national team, Steaua managed just three championships from 1967 to 1978 but they never failed to impress in domestic cup competitions, winning the majority of Romanian Cup’s they entered.

As Steaua struggled to gain consistency it was to the benefit of their arch rivals and fellow capital team Dinamo Bucharest, formed the same year in 1947 under Communist direction. Quickly matches between the two were coined ‘The Eternal Derby’ and when Steaua did not win the title, Dinamo more often tha, not did. The latter half of the 1950s saw Dinamo begin their fight to wrestle domination from the enemy and they became the first Romanian team to play in European competition in 1956, even facing Real Madrid years later in front of 100,000 supporters in Bucharest. The 1960s and 1970s were fruitful for the ‘Red Dogs’ with eight league championships.

As 1970 arrived, the national team was ending a barren spell of 32 years without World Cup finals qualification. Finally they reached the competition in Mexico but were handed a group of death that included Czechoslovakia, eventual winners Brazil and World Cup holders England.

With a win needed against Brazil in their final group game, Pelé and Jairzinho put them to the sword and the 3-2 scoreline flattered the Romanians. Their appearance alone was an achievement and Romania owed a great deal to one of its legendary players; attacking midfielder Nicolae Dobrin.

Playing almost his whole career at Argeș Pitești, Dobrin was courted by the world’s best clubs and was denied a move to Real Madrid due to communist rule and President Ceaușescu’s refusal to let go of a national treasure. The ‘ Romanian George Best’ was one of the finest dribblers of his generation and would surely have gone on to greatness had he moved to Western Europe. Instead he saw out his career at Argeș and coached them for three spells, finally in 2001.

Failing to qualify for the next four World Cups after 1970, the national team were disappearing into oblivion and when they did make the European Championships for the first time in 1984 they left without a win. Six years later in 1990 the mood would be lifted as they made the World Cup in Italy with a completely domestic-based squad. An unexpected victory against the USSR and a well-deserved draw against Argentina saw them progress but Ireland would defeat them in a tight penalty shoot-out.

Meanwhile on the domestic scene Steaua Bucharest would win the biggest honour available on the continent against the stars of Barcelona. The 1986 European Cup was settled by an incredible penalty shoot-out in Seville with Romanian keeper Helmuth Duckadam saving every one of the Spaniards penalties. Duckadam would be tagged the “Hero of Seville” yet only represented his country twice in his career. Steaua added to this with five league titles in the 1980s and across town Dinamo attempted to keep up, picking up four titles to continue the two-way battle for Romania’s top team.

The undisputed star of this era was the attacking midfielder Gheorghe Hagi, a man so good they gave him several nicknames including ‘The King’, ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’ and ‘The Commander’ to name just a few. His first five professional years were spent with lowly Farul Constanța and Sportul Studențesc, retaining a 1:2 goal to game ratio.

His transfer to Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest came as they reached the European Super Cup final in 1987 and curiously his contract was for just one game. He was the standout performer in the game and Steaua refused to let him return to Studențsesc and managed to broker a deal to keep him permanently. The finer details of the deal were not made public and the imagination runs wild about what force or threats may have been used considering the team were the Romanian Army’s sports club.

What is clear in his impact on Steaua, scoring 76 times in 97 games on the domestic scene in three years before a move to Real Madrid in 1990. His stint coincided with Steaua’s astonishing, and record-breaking, 104 match undefeated streak in the Romanian league from 1986 to 1989.

As the rest of Eastern Europe experienced a tidal wave of unrest in 1989, Romania was no different. After months of violent protests and deaths, the communist regime was overthrown with President Ceaușescu and his wife executed on Christmas Day and a new government was formed.

The effect of the revolution was immediate and top players from Romania’s best teams, particularly Steaua and Dinamo, left for major European clubs. It could be argued that this was a godsend as it gave their leading talent a chance to play against and with Europe’s finest and improved the national team’s strength. It would also allow the two-team monopoly to subside and other teams to flourish. Steaua would subsequently only win two titles in the 1990s, the same as Dinamo.

With Hagi’s terrorising style, Romania’s status was entering a revolution of its own and they were dubbed the best national team the country had ever seen as they entered the USA World Cup in 1994. Seen as one of the most entertaining teams of the tournament, they progressed by beating outside favourites Colombia and hosts USA and then humiliated a suspiciously alert Maradona-led Argentina 3-2 in the Second Round. The dizzy heights of the quarter-final proved too much and another heart-breaking penalty shootout ended in defeat against Sweden.

Instrumental at the finals and during the Golden Years were the efforts and goals of two further stars of the period, Ilie Dumistrescu and Florin Răducioiu. The former ended up scoring 20 goals in 62 games for his country and after starting his career at Steaua, earned a post-World Cup move to Tottenham Hotspur, followed by spells at Sevilla and West Ham United. Sadly his career never truly took off in Europe.

A former Dinamo Bucharest striker, Răducioiu had already made his mark in Italy by 1994, even being snapped up by AC Milan, but never settled long enough at any club with spells in Spain, England, Germany and France. His six-year whirlwind for the national team did however yield 21 goals in 40 appearances.

Not forgetting their defence, the linchpin throughout these years was Gheorghe Popescu, marshalling the back line expertly and gaining club experience for teams such as PSV, Tottenham and Inter Milan before retiring in 2003. Hagi himself earned a move to Barcelona after the 1994 tournament finished and went on to be a superstar for Galatasaray in Turkey.

Prior to the next World Cup came a disastrous 1996 European Championship effort, but they entered the game’s biggest showpiece in 1998 in curiously high spirits. Their impressive feat of winning a group including England, Colombia and Tunisia, often plays second fiddle to their decision to bleach their hair for the final decisive group game.

The combination of their bright red kit and blonde hair supplement an impressive possession-based performance but the smiles were erased in a Second Round defeat to the Davor Šuker-led Croatia. Just two years later the team produced their best performance yet at a European Championship. A late Dan Petrescu goal famously beat England and knocked them out of the tournament before Italy brought them back to earth in a 2-0 quarter-final win, the game marking Hagi’s final major competition bow.

At home the millennium saw the gradual return of the Steaua-Dinamo dynasty and they shared three titles each in the following decade. But on the horizon came a cluster of surprise winners including Rapid Bucharest, one-time winners and minnows Oțelul Galați and Unirea Urziceni, but most notably the rise of CFR Cluj.

With substantial investment in 2002, by 2008 they were playing in the Champions League, just six years after being a third tier team in Romania. With three championships to 2012 and a host of cup wins, despite Steaua’s 2013 title, Cluj will be strong contenders for Romania’s best team this decade.

For the national team, recent years have seen a host of near misses for both the European Championship and World Cup, with the only qualification for each coming at Euro 2008. This was achieved with a team including Christian Chivu. Their joy at reaching the tournament was quickly dampened when they were drawn in a super-group that included France, Italy and the Netherlands, with no-one surprised that they exited without registering a win.

Soon after, three of their star players would retire from international duty including seasoned veterans Mirel Rădoi, Cosmin Contra and the infamous, controversial striker Adrian Mutu. With a club career including Chelsea, Parma and Inter, Mutu is now back playing in Romania in the twilight of his career and bowed out for the national team in 2013 with an impressive 35 goals in 77 games.

The most alarming and often devastating development in Romanian football has been corruption. Despite claims it has been rife for decades, the repercussions are being felt stronger than ever. Pre-communist days saw three-to-five club Presidents form a ‘cooperativa’ to ensure the communist local and central administration’s role in choosing first division teams for the next season would always be favourable.

As the grip of corruption grew, the standard of competition suffered with most agreeing the ten years between 1992 and 2002 were so tainted it was comical and contributed to the Romanian team’s poor performance in Europe over the decade.

In 2012 some four-and-a-half years after a huge investigation began, well-known football figure Gigi Becali was jailed for three years for bribery. Becali has a chequered history, having gained his wealth by selling land to the Romanian Army in 1998, gradually becoming a majority shareholder in Steaua Bucharest and also becoming a Member of Parliament in his country.

Jailed for a corrupt real estate deal, the millionaire now has the charge of bribery too after passing money in a briefcase to rival players. Similar cases are said to be rife in the Romanian league with many claiming money is exchanged hands to ensure opposing teams benefit by Team A winning at home in return for Team B winning at home too later in the season.

The current crop of men running Romanian football does little to encourage hope. When Universitatea Craiova’s coach recently criticised the league president Dumitru Dragomir, the result was the forced combustion of the squad, releasing all registered players and being unable to compete in any competitions for one year. The Romanian Football Federation president Mircea Sandu appears to be the orchestrator and even continued his ruthless streak by banishing top flight Politehnica Timișoara to the second tier, further flexing his muscles.

The most worrying example that suggests Steaua’s authority is to not to be challenged at risk of the higher powers, came when ex-Chelsea star Dan Petrescu took minnows Unirea Urziceni to the title in 2009 and beat Glasgow Rangers in the Champions League. Instead of celebrating the rise of an unlikely champion, Steaua owner Gigi Becali made vitriolic remarks to the media immediately and in a sign at the power he wielded, Unirea’s owner sold off his squad causing relegation in 2010 and the club disappearing forever in 2011.

With failure to qualify for Brazil this year, expectations remain low for the coming years and the signs are not encouraging when your Football Association is operated by dictator-like practices. For inspiration the nation should look to some of the industrious talent that in other circumstances would have been world stars.

In time the domestic league will hopefully embrace the competition against the trophy-laden Bucharest cabinets but unless a complete overhaul of authority is implemented the nation will have to become accustomed to aggressive and predictable resistance and a national team that fails to deliver.

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