This is CFR Cluj

Perennial followers of European competitions will be all too familiar with the names of many teams  It's always the usual suspects, right?  But every few years a team emerges that may be new to many.  Thomas Wood looks to Romania*.

They have won the domestic title twice in their 103-year history. They have a 23,500-seater stadium. Just over two years ago, they beat Roma away in the Champions League and that same year drew 0-0 at home to Chelsea. In the overall all-time rankings of their domestic league, they are 21st.

They are CFR Cluj and they are on the up.

Last season Cluj won the Liga 1 in Romania for only the second time, guaranteeing them automatic Champions League qualification. They were drawn into a group with losing finalists Bayern Munich, Roma, and Basel, a big ask for a club from Romania’s 4th city. Yet they started in the best possible fashion, winning a home-tie 2-1 against Swiss club Basel. Sure, they were winning 2-0, and had a fair few chances to put the game to bed, but the £600k prize money for each win in the group stages of the Champions League will go a long way to easing that.

Founded in 1907, Cluj were originally named Kolozsvári Vasutas Sport Club when the city was part of then Austria-Hungary. Following the demise of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the club renamed itself to Căile Ferate Române (“Romanian Railways”), and later abbreviating that to CFR Cluj.

The Feroviarii briefly became CSM Cluj following a merger with Rapid Cluj in 1960 but once again reverted to CFR Cluj, the name the retain today (amongst some other name changes in the 80s).

They plied their trade in the third and second tiers of Romanian football during those days, briefly earning promotion to the premier division in 1947. Their first season was very promising, the club finishing seventh out of 16 but ultimately their rise to the top came too soon as they were relegated the following season. It would be another 20 years before Cluj returned to Divizia A.

Under the stewardship of Dr. Constantin Rădulescu (a man with a brief yet interesting Wikipedia page), they stormed the old Divizia B and returned to A. This time they managed to stay in the top flight, flirting with relegation every step of the way. It was not until 1972 that things began to change for the better as the club brought in potentially the best player never to play for Romania; Mihai Adam.

Adam had been the top goalscorer in top flight twice before, and his signing was something of a coup for the club. His career total of 160 goals puts him ninth in the list of all time goalscorers, yet he was never capped for Romania. Perhaps that was what drove him in the twilight of his career to help CFR Cluj to an unprecedented 5th place finish in Divizia A that season. It would be a further 33 years before they were able to repeat that feat.

Following relegation in 1976, the club experienced its darkest hours slipping even further down the table eventually finding themselves in the third tier of Romanian football in 1982. They yoyo’d between Divizia B and C, enduring some tough times following the Romanian Revolution in 1989 eventually finding themselves on the brink of bankruptcy. In 2000, they began the season without a single Leu to their name. That though would be the end of the hardship as in 2002 Arpad Paszkany a tycoon from Transylvania took over the club.

Paszkany was able to bring in fresh investment and a new president in Iuliu Muresan, and that summer the club began to rebuild, bringing in a new manager and crucially new players, perhaps most importantly Adrian Anca. Anca was a striker entering the prime of his career and in 2003 was the club’s top goalscorer and remains a huge favourite among the fans.

Finally, after years of struggle, the Feroviarii returned from their exile and were promoted to Divizia A in 2004. With the aim of eventually winning the Romanian title and more crucially remaining in the top flight, the club set about investing in Portuguese players who had hitherto gone overlooked in the Liga Sagres. These players formed a strong contingent which dominated the dressing room, and even though many of them have moved on to pastures new they still retain the captain Cadú, goalie Nuno Claro, defender Nuno Diogo and the “Pitbull” Tony. Of the 13 players Paszkany purchased in 2006, only 2 were Romanian, leading many rival fans to claim that Cluj “bought the title”.

They finished a respectable 11th in their first season, eventually finding themselves title contenders by the 06/07 season and finally winning it in 07/08 ending a 17-year hold on the trophy by teams based in Bucharest (a situation similar to that in Turkey).

With the attraction of Champions League football the club have been able to build; bringing in foreign names such as the Ivorian Lacina Traoré, even Uruguayan Alvaro Pereira for €2.5m who later joined Porto and had a decent World Cup as his Uruguay defied all expectations.

So how does 2010 look for the Romanian Railways? After eight games, the team find themselves in 14th, with only 8 points to their name. The win over Basel will no doubt have pleased the fans, yet the club find themselves in a similar position last time they graced the Champions League, their domestic form clearly suffering. The challenge for Cluj now is to fight on both fronts; using the prize money from Europe to invest in the club which could allow for a cycle of domestic success and European qualification.

They face Roma in the Italian capital next Tuesday, with high hopes of repeating their success of 2008. The days when the name of CFR Cluj, the oldest club in Romania, is foreign to all our lips are long gone.

* Thomas would like to thank IBWM colleague Radu Baicu for his help with this article.

Thomas writes regularly for IBWM.  If you would like to read more from him, please visit Heaven’s 11.