After a hesitant beginning, a romantic youth and fifty years of desolation, the relationship between natives and foreigners in the Romanian football is more complicated than ever.
"We (three high school students) watched, on an Easter Day in 1913, at the Cold Arch pitch, a match between the ‘Blues’ and the ‘Reds’ - both teams made up entirely by foreigners. I only remember Verocsy, with his white bonnet, and the tall figure of the opposing goalkeeper. We left the place thrilled by the match and, at the same time, puzzled. Isn't this game part of the Romanian essence? Or is the contrariety between football and the Romanians only the fear of competing with these foreign players?"
These words belong to the founder of the first all-Romanian football team and the question, timidly asked by this football dreamer almost a century ago, still echoes in the minds of the few fanatics who enjoy spending their afternoons in the stands of the Liga I stadiums.
The beautiful game was brought to Romania, as in most countries around the world, by foreign workers. The British played it near the oil fields of Ploiesti, where they united their straights and formed a club named... well, United Ploiesti. Englishmen kicked the round ball in the courtyard of a cotton plant from Bucharest (Colentina A.C.), while the Germans created their own team with their own flavour - Bukarester FK. Romanian and Swiss students founded the first team in the country: Olympia Bucharest, in October 1904. None of these avant-garde clubs, who all tasted a piece of raw and primordial football glory in Romania, survived more than a couple of decades. History didn't even bother to remember the first names of true football pioneers like Grünberg, Middleton, Sparks, Dawhurt, Matthews, Rosman, Redfern or Hense.
After 'The Great War', the young nation which was Romania started to prosper and its football soon flourished. The domestic league was exciting. The mix between foreign players and curious and aspiring locals was highly productive. It a short period of time, a healthy and refined blend was created - a national identity of football. It wasn't a surprise that just one player who was born inside the actual borders of the country played in the maiden match of the Romanian national team. His name was Aurel Guga, the charismatic captain who scored the winning goal in the historic 2-1 success over Yugoslavia in Belgrade. The 'Tricolorii' went on to play at the first three World Cup tournament, but never managed to get over the first round. They were beaten by hosts and winners Uruguay in 1930, by runners-up Czechoslovakia in 1934 and were shocked by Cuba on French soil, in 1938.
Many Hungarians - who were establishing themselves as front-runners in Central and Eastern Europe since the 1920s - played or coached in the Romanian league. Teams like Venus and Rapid disputed a bitter rivalry in Bucharest, while the Western town of Timisoara was the birthplace of multiple title winning teams, like Ripensia or Chinezul. CAO, a team from the Transylvanian city of Oradea, won both the Romanian and the Hungarian league. Ripensia ousted AC Milan in the Mitropa Cup and Rapid qualified for the final of the competition in 1940. The game was never played due to the outbreak of the Second World War.
Budapest-born Franz Platko - a legend at the now forgotten 'Les Corts' - left FC Barcelona and took over Venus, in 1937. He would later lead Colo-Colo to three national titles in Chile and enjoy short spells at the helm of River Plate and Boca Juniors, before returning to FC Barcelona, in 1955. The famous Béla Guttmann spent a few months at Ciocanul Bucharest, before making his way to European glory with Benfica Lisbon. Kálmán Konrád, the truly first "Mighty Magyar", coached both Rapid and the Romanian national football team. Alfréd Schaffer, who was on the bench for Hungary in the 1938 World Cup final, was the manager of Rapid in the 1939-40 season. He would later bring AS Roma its first Serie A title (1942). Gyula Lorant played for two Romanian teams before joining the fabulous Hungary side who lost to Germany in the Miracle of Bern match. He also became a successful manager, being at the helm of sides like Bayern Munchen or FC Kaiserslautern, and helping PAOK Thessaloniki win a championship.
This bourgeois and border-free type of football gave birth to players like Elemér Berkessy (born in Oradea), who spent a big part of his playing career in Romania. He would later join FC Barcelona and become the first foreign manager in the English Football League (at Grimsby Town - 1954).
The most important foreign signing made by a Romanian club was that of the Greek super-striker Kostas Choumis. Top-scorer for his country, he joined Venus in 1936, after finding the net twice in an international friendly against Romania. His stay in Bucharest - which turned out to be a very successful one - would end in 1947, when "The Blacks" were ousted from the top flight by the Communist regime.
After the Second World War, other legendary clubs of the Romanian 'Belle Epoque', like Carmen (replaced by the newly formed and Army-backed Steaua) or Unirea Tricolor and Ciocanul (who would merge and form Dinamo - the squad of the Police) would be dissolved. All the foreign players and managers soon left the country, including Hungarian Ladislau Bonyhádi, the mighty and enigmatic forward who scored 49 goals in a single season for UTA.
Football in Romania was now, and would be for the following 50 years, just for the Romanians. On the short term, it was a disaster. The national team managed to qualify at the World Cup only once (Mexico 1970), while European glory remained, for decades, only a dream. Slowly, the centralized system started to provide some quality. Results started to show in the mid-'80s, when Steaua won the European Cup, while Dinamo and Universitatea Craiova both reached semi-finals in continental competitions. Then December '89 happened.
In January 1990, football players were Romania's top export merchandise. Liga I had all but moved to the airport. Steaua's superstars like Gheorghe Hagi, Gheorghe Popescu or Dan Petrescu were among the first to leave. Dinamo sold more than 25 players in less than two seasons. The holes were filled up mostly by players from smaller Romanian teams, but some clubs were attracted by the prospect of importing foreign players. Albanians were the first to come in, striker Roland Agalliu being the actual first.
After half a century of saying "no", Romanian teams had to go out 'dating' again and it was clear to many that it wasn't going to be love at first sight. Steaua resisted the temptation for many years, betting on its "Golden Age" strategy - buy the best from the rest of Romania -, but everything changed with the success enjoyed by CFR Cluj in the last ten years. This low profile club during the Communist regime had a more open minded perspective. They bought what they could afford from everywhere except Romania. Countries like Portugal or Argentina were the main targets, mainly because footballers from these leagues are very cheap and also very ambitious. It worked. CFR won three league titles in the last five seasons and are the current champions. 'Copycats' emerged in Urziceni (champions in 2009), Galati (2011) or Vaslui (runners-up last season). Now, everybody wants in.
Just a few weeks back, the 18 teams from the Liga I played their first match of the season, the 95th edition of the elite football league in Romania. Within their ranks, the top flight clubs have 129 foreign players, the highest number yet. And this tendency will not soften, despite producing a collateral victim. The national football team, who was at its best during the '90s, reaching third place in the FIFA rankings at one point, has become a subject of popular ridicule after failing to qualify for the last three World Cups.
The dilemma that troubled that unnamed lover of the game on an Easter Day in 1913 still hasn't been answered. It is now obvious that Romanian footballers are losing the battle on their home grounds, but few of them can blame this on a crisis of confidence. Most of them appear to suffer from mass apathy, a stubborn refusal of accepting the fact that they have to compete with these foreign, more motivated and also more professional rivals. There is just one certainty in the volatile and frantic Liga I - the point of no return for Romanian football players has been passed. They must react as their ancestors have done.
Sorin is a sport writer for the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul zilei.