Toothless in Transylvania: Romania’s sad decline
Posted on March 15, 2017
IN JANUARY 1969, England centre-half Jackie Charlton handled the ball in the penalty area at Wembley and a 20 year-old forward named Florea Dumitrache stepped-up to score past Gordon Banks with 16 minutes to go. England, the World Champions, were held by what the TV commentators called “a minor nation”.
Dumitrache looked useful and in the 1970 World Cup, he was one of the players that stood out among the unfancied participants. He scored twice and could have had more. When he returned home to Bucharest, Juventus wanted to lure him away to the land of binary scorelines and offered his club USD 1.5m. The Nicolae Ceausescu regime wouldn’t let young Florea go, so he spent his career at home.
In the early 1970s, Romania may still have been seen by some as “minor”, but it was a tricky place to visit if you were playing in European competition. Tottenham Hotspur, for example, had to endure what became known as “the battle of Bucharest” when they visited Rapid in the UEFA Cup. It wasn’t so much that Romanian teams were strong or especially skilful – in the early 1970s, domestic football was based on a version of the dreaded catenaccio – but there was an air of mystery and fear behind the Iron Curtain and Romanian folklore was, after all, renowned for having a penchant for vampires!
Before the 1980s, Romania was still considered to be a fairly weak nation, but a golden generation changed all that. Looking at the landscape today, it is hard to believe that this group of players gave Romania a European Cup winner and some talented individuals that were among Europe’s most sought-after footballers.
Romanian domestic football now looks as though it is at an all-time low. The top tier, Liga 1, has an average attendance of only 2,400, down from 4,900 in 2015-16 and in the 21st century it has dropped from almost 7,000. Moreover, Bucharest, the capital city, is in a sorry state, with Steaua losing their identity in court, Rapid going bust and almost disappearing altogether and Dinamo becoming insolvent just two years ago.
Financial problems have plagued Romanian football for years. As well as Rapid and Dinamo, Floria Bistrita, Universtitatea Cluj and Otelul Galati have all filed for insolvency in order to survive. It is ironic, however, that Romanian clubs should find themselves in such dire straits at a time when the country’s economy is actually doing rather well. In 2016, it grew by some 5% and analysts predict that over the next decade, growth rates could rise to around 8% per annum. Unemployment is 5.5% but the country still has 14% living below the poverty line. Market analysts called Romania the “tiger of the east” because of its potential and rising middle class and the International Monetary Fund has forecast that Romania will generate the highest growth in Europe in 2017.
But Romanian football has suffered for a number of reasons. When Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, the state was in the grips of the dictatorial Ceausescu. Until the 1980s, Romanian teams barely made a mark in Europe. The first signs that something had changed came in 1983-84 when Dinamo Bucharest reached the last four of the European Cup. Then Steaua had a four year period where they not only won the competition in 1986, but then reached the semi-final and another final in 1989.
Steaua’s 1986 team included Marius Lacatus, the most successful Romanian player of all time in domestic football, Laszlo Boloni, who won 102 caps for his country and captain Stefan Iovan. Their goalkeeper, Helmuth Duckadam, who became a hero after saving decisive penalties in the final against Barcelona, later felt the wrath of the Ceausescu administration, disappearing for years because he had received a car for his performance in Sevilla in the final.
Steaua’s second final came at a time of unrest, culminating in the December revolution that saw the toppling and bloody death of Nicolae Ceausescu. Weening off state socialism was a slow process in Romania and a decade after the fall of Ceausescu, both Steaua and Dinamo were still the playthings of the army and state. The game in Romania became immersed in corruption and financial irregularity. Match-fixing was rife – they even had a special word for it, blat. Although it was heavily associated with the period before the revolution of 1989, the communist local and central administration continued to play a key role in designating the teams who would play in the top division each year. There was a “club” of presidents who would help each other to avoid relegation. This cartel was known as cooperativa and it reached a peak in 2001 when Baia Mare FC “sold” their place in the top division to Bacau.
Corruption, apparently, continues to this day and some clubs across the country struggle to pay their players. Some clubs have had some dubious owners that have ended-up in prison and others have admitted being involved in match-fixing. Jonathan Wilson, in his book, Behind the Curtain, said Bucharest (which was once known as the Paris of the East) was an “uncomfortable mix of the appealing and the appalling” characterised by the number of people trying to rip him off when he was in the city.
But Romania cannot say it has not been warned of storm clouds over Bucharest. Back in 1998, Gheorghe Hagi, their last great player and kingpin in the national team that reached the last eight of the 1994 World Cup, suggested that Romanian football was on the brink, that club football was truly finished. Hagi has tried desperately to encourage youth development in Romania, but there is little sign of a commitment to nurturing talent.
Certainly attendances over the past decade suggest that the public has lost faith. They don’t appear to trust the game or its owners. If you gain a reputation for match-fixing, the spectators don’t know if they’re watching the real deal. It can take decades to shake off the mud.
More immediately, the clubs cannot generate enough income and have traditionally relied on owners pumping money in to paper over the cracks. Inevitably, when the money dries up, the clubs sink like a stone. Hence the once mighty Rapid Bucharest went down and are now plying their trade somewhere in a nether regions of Romanian football.
In the top league, Romanian clubs rely on TV broadcasting fees for around a third of their revenues, that’s a higher percentage than any league outside the top 20 and about the sixth highest right across Europe. But the TV deal is not good, just EUR 24m shared across the league, resulting in just EUR 1.7m per club. Gate receipts account for only 3% of total revenues, a relatively low figure. The biggest slice of the revenue cake comes from “other” sources, which can be loosely translated as owners and donations. Romanian football is clearly a game that cannot naturally pay for itself.
Little wonder, then, that Romanian clubs struggle to make an impact in, for example, the UEFA Champions League. In the last three seasons, no Romanian team has reached the group stage and in the modern era, not a single foray into the knockout stage has been achieved.
Despite their legal battles, Steaua still represent Romania’s best bet for some form of European profile. The club has – or maybe it hasn’t – changed its name to FCSB because the army won’t let the club use its name – “There is only one Steaua and that is the Army Sports Club Steaua Bucharest” was the verdict of the court hearing. Nevertheless, old habits die hard and you can be sure that Steaua’s fans will not let the old name die. It’s a mess, but then Romanian football is deep in the mire. We can only hope that one day, the country that gave us Hagi, Dumitrache, Dumitrescu, and Petrescu will return to some sort of respectability. If Romania is, in fact, a fast-growing economy, there might just be some money around for people with vision to restore the country’s sporting reputation. If something isn’t done, then Romania’s football will continue to decline and 2,500 will become 1,000 will become, to quote Hagi, “zero”.