Romanian football in the 1930s – Balkan cream

IT WAS 35 years ago that Steaua Bucharest became the first Romanian team to win a major European prize and also the first from the east to lift the trophy with the rather large ears. Romania have, all too often, been dismissed as also-rans, even though they have produced some outstanding players over the decades.

Romania rarely ventured outside the Balkans for many years, and then in the post second world war era, were more comfortable playing fellow communist states. But in the 1930s, Romania were far more adventurous than, for example, England, and were among the pioneers who took part in the fledgling FIFA World Cup, appearing in 1930, 1934 and 1938. England didn’t join the World Cup party until 1950.

In the inter-war years, Romania went through considerable change as the country’s industrial sector grew significantly. Agriculture was still the main employer, though, although foreign investment was becoming more prevalent, notably from France and increasingly in the 1930s, Germany. 

Growth

Industrialisation supported the growth of football in Romania. The game progressed via two main arteries of development: the Transylvanian side of the nation, dominated by academics and the bourgeoisie and later handed on to the working class; and the influence of foreigners and the oil companies. Romania, before world war one, had very little heavy industry. In 1902, for instance, less than 200,000 people worked in industry, around 2% of the population. The oil industry sprung up after legislation made it easier for foreign oil companies to bring their extraction skills to Romania, predominantly in the Pitesti-Câmpina and Bacau area. 

Foreigners were really behind the formation of the early football clubs. German workers in the oil fields created Olimpia in 1904, along with young Romanians. They were based in Bucharest and won the first two championships before converting to rugby in 1915 and ultimately being dissolved in 1946. Their big rivals were Colentina, another Bucharest side formed by British textile workers from the Colentina Cotton Factory. They were also dissolved after the second world war. American and Dutch workers from Standard Oil formed Româno-Americanâ FC in Ploiesti, later moving to Bucharest. The club won the league in 1915, but was extinct by 1916.

After the first world war, Romanian football was dominated by a club from outside the capital city, Chinezul Timisoara. Formed in 1910 as Temesvári Kinizsi SE, reflecting a huge Hungarian influence, they were named after an army general. They were also supported by the local rail workers association. Chinezul won the title every season from 1921-22 to 1926-27, but success came at a cost. In 1927, the club was staring at the prospect of bankruptcy, largely due to the departure of founder and president Dr. Cornel Lazâr, who went on to form another Timisoara club, Ripensia. Lazâr left Chinezul due to a dispute over embezzlement of club funds involving another official. With his exit, most of the club’s best players also left, seven of them joining Ripensia to build the first fully professional club.

Romania began playing international matches in 1922 and entered the Olympic Games in 1924, losing 6-0 to the Netherlands in Paris. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that they started to become noticeable, competing in the Balkan Cup and also taking part in the inaugural World Cup in 1930.

The Balkan Cup was partly inspired by the success of the Coupe Internationale européene (latterly known as the Dr. Gerö Cup), a competition founded by Hugo Meisl. The first edition took place between 1929 and 1931 and involved Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Before Romania took part in the first games, former army officer Constantin Radulescu was appointment manager, succeeding Teofil Morariu. Their first Balkan Cup game was on October 10 1929 in Bucharest against Yugoslavia, which they won 2-1.

Their next game in the competition was also in Bucharest, against Greece. They were far too strong for the Greeks, winning 8-1, with Rudolf Wetzer, a 28 year-old Jewish striker who played for Budapest’s Ujpest before joining Juventus Bucaresti, scoring five times. 

Romania wanted to make an impact on the international football stage and King Carol II was happy to use his position to help them. An avid football fan, he persuaded FIFA to let Romania participate in the first World Cup in Uruguay. Although the deadline had passed, the King got his way and also made sure that Romania’s players were still paid by their employers – most worked for an English oil company – in the three months they were absent from their duties.

Only four European countries made the long trip to Uruguay, the other three were Belgium, France and Yugoslavia. All bar Yugoslavia travelled on the Italian ship SS Conte Verde, along with Jules Rimet and his trophy and a team of referees. The 16-day journey started at Genoa for the Romanians.

The Romanian squad was drawn from 10 clubs, including three from Juventus, and two apiece from Olimpia, Chinezul and UDR Resita. As well as the captain, Wetzer, it also included a future Olympic figure skater, Alfred Eisenbeisser of Dragos Voda, a club that became part of the Ukraine.  Another notable player was Nicolae Kovács, the older brother of future Ajax European Cup-winning coach Stefan Kovács.

Uruguay

After a warm-up game in Montevideo against France, Romania began their World Cup campaign against Peru on July 14 1930 in front of just 2,500 people. It took them just 60 seconds to open the scoring through Adalbert Desu. Peru equalised with half an hour remaining, but two more goals, by striker Constantin Stanciu and Kovács gave Romania the best possible start, even though Adalbert Steiner of Chinezul broke his leg against the robust Peruvians.

The problem was, Romania had to face the hosts, Uruguay in their second group game in a packed Estadio Centenario. By half-time, they were 4-0 down and on their way out of the competition. The experience had been rewarding though, and Romania were now known outside the Balkan region. 

The Balkan Cup continued with a 5-3 defeat against Bulgaria in Sofia, but into 1931 Romania got their revenge with a 5-2 victory in Bucharest, with young striker Iuliu Bodola making his mark and eventually becoming leading scorer in the competition.

Bodola is a controversial figure in the history of the game. He was reputed to be an anti-Semite and was arrested for collaborating with the German Gestapo during world war two. He was never tried, although there are stories of him being detained on a number of occasions. Bodola was sold by Ferar Cluj to MTK Budapest (ironic given MTK was predominantly Jewish) for a token fee in 1946 and he never returned to Romania.

He was an excellent player and scored 30 goals in 48 appearances for Romania and four goals in 13 games for Hungary – his international career last 17 years. He was named Hungarian Footballer of the Year in 1942 while playing for Nagyváradi AC. He scored two more goals in Zagreb as Romania beat Yugoslavia in June 1931 and then a hat-trick in Athens in a 4-2 win against Greece in November 1931. 

Romania won the Balkan Cup with ease, their 15 points from six games were seven more than second-placed Yugoslavia. In 1934, they reached the second World Cup, overcoming Switzerland and old foes Yugoslavia in the qualifying competition, but went out in the first round in Trieste against Czechoslavakia. They also appeared in 1938, but failed to win a single game.

Success in the Balkans in the 1930s helped the development of football in Romania, but the second world war and its aftermath meant they were an unknown quantity for many years. They didn’t appear again in the World Cup finals until 1970, when they were drawn against England, Brazil and Czechoslavakia. Romanian football has had its moments, notably in 1986 when Steaua shocked the continent of Europe and in 1994 when a team that included the great Gheorghe Hagi reached the last eight. We’re still waiting for the next chapter – maybe 2022 in Qatar?

@GameofthePeople

Photo: ALAMY

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