A derby through time: the convoluted saga of football in Bucharest

A derby through time: the convoluted saga of football in Bucharest

The recent plight of Romanian domestic football is a tale of stagnation, financial woe and farce. Nowhere encapsulates its decline like the country’s capital, Bucharest. Once revered as a bastion of Parisian beauty, with its elegant boulevards and belle-epoque buildings, Romania’s turbulent 20th century witnessed Nicolae Ceașescu’s imposition of brutalist monstrosities on the city. 

Following communism’s implosion, uncertainty over legal ownership of land, combined with a lack of public funds, resulted in widespread architectural dereliction. In a case of sport imitating life, Bucharest’s historic football clubs were visited by similar decay and neglect.

However, a highly educated workforce, substantial infrastructural development and foreign investment has led to an upturn in Bucharest’s fortunes of late. Classical buildings, music theatres, Bauhaus-inspired constructs and American-style banks sit alongside awe-inspiring communist blocs to create a stunningly visual historical narrative of the region. Imposing new skyscrapers add a modern sheen previously absent from the city. Now a thriving, dynamic and culturally diverse metropolis, it remains to be seen if the city’s football teams can emulate its social and financial recovery.   

A fourth division fixture in late-August 2019 between two of the capital’s best-known clubs, Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, provided a stark snapshot of the chaotic state of football in the city.

Rich histories

Steaua Bucharest, Romania’s most successful club, were founded in 1947 by the Romanian army. Their original name, Army Sports Association Bucharest, reflects its military origins. They quickly established themselves as Romania’s premier team. After two more name changes, in 1961 they adopted their classic moniker, CSA (‘Army Sports Club Steaua’). 

Although CSA basked in plentiful domestic success after their formation, the 1980s were undoubtedly the club’s years. During this period, they won four domestic league titles and one European Cup, reaching the final the following year but suffering a heavy 4-0 defeat to AC Milan. They were the club favoured by Ceașescu himself, and his son Valentin served as their president. 

Dinamo formed in 1948 and were controlled by Romania’s Ministry of the Interior. They also have Jewish roots. Maccabi Bucharest were a Jewish club based in the district of Dudesti. Samuel Zauber, Maccabi’s goalkeeper, had been one of the first representatives of a Jewish club to play in a World Cup when he went with Romania’s team to the 1930 tournament. 

In 1940, Maccabi were banned from competing in Romania, anticipating a wave of brutal anti-semitism that would beset the country in the coming years. After Maccabi’s reformation following the war, they were renamed Ciocanul and soon merged with Unirea Tricolor Bucureşti to form Dinamo.

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While they never hit the lofty heights of Steaua, Dinamo have 18 Romanian championships to their name, the first coming in 1955 and the last in 2007. They featured regularly in European competition throughout the 80s and 90s, reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1984 and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990. 

Their rivalry with Steaua intensified in the 80s; controversial refereeing decisions in Steaua’s favour, and the bizarre granting of the 1988 Romanian Cup to Steaua after Dinamo were declared victorious on the day, served to heighten enmity between the clubs.  

A derby like no other

Before relaying the details of the match in question, it is important to clarify which versions of the teams were playing. This Steaua were the army-backed incarnation, currently in possession of the naming rights and original crest of the esteemed footballing institution; the background to this strange and convoluted situation will be elaborated on later. This was the official successor to the squad which had famously defeated Barcelona to win the European Cup in 1986. Sitting comfortably in the upper echelons of their division, they were facing Dinamo’s second team.

Evidently, then, I would be attending a slightly different version of Bucharest’s storied Eternal Derby. I was not expecting a repeat of previous pyromaniacal encounters, such as the 1997 episode where the away section of Steaua’s stadium was set on fire by Dinamo fans or when, in June 2015, another game was suspended for 18 minutes as a hailstorm of flares rained down from the stands. Despite this, what did take place would be no less memorable or dramatic.  

This local clash took place in the Daco-Getica, also known as the Colentina stadium, Steaua’s temporary home is a skeletal, ageing structure tucked away amidst towering residential blocks. Their famed Ghencea stadium has been undergoing extensive renovations for Euro 2020. 

From Bucharest’s charming old town, I boarded a tram to the Daco-Getica, whose antiquated carriages creakily wound their way through the city’s eye-catching suburbs. A scattering of once-grand, baroque homes interspersed alongside lego-like concrete structures and storefronts in various states of repair flowed past outside. Some mildly inebriated Steaua fans were on board, though their rowdiness was good-natured and benign.

I hopped off the tram in the Colentina district, a jarring combination of concrete megastructures and wide traffic-plagued avenues offset by quaint, rustic side-streets. It was as if a rural village had been buried beneath the debris of communist town planning and was poking out between the cracks, gasping for air. Exposed electricity cables hung loosely between poles, while narrow laneways and ancient corner shops appeared at random intervals. The area was an oddly beautiful mixture of art-deco, faded grandeur and concrete greyness.

Ambling towards the stadium on that bright August afternoon, it was easy to get swept up in romantic daydreams about football from a bygone era. With not an advertising hoarding in sight and overhanging blocks framing the scene, it was, for a moment, as if this was some entirely separate plane to the here and now. Turning down a weed-strewn path, I was greeted by a makeshift ticket booth – a table manned by two sprightly volunteers – and got a ticket for a few Romanian leu.

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Entering the ground 30 minutes before kick-off, its rickety benches were sparsely populated. As the match loomed ever nearer, the ultras finally began to trickle in, setting themselves up behind one of the goals and bellowing out their extensive repertoire of chants. Whilst the atmosphere was somewhat diluted by the absence of any Dinamo fans, and the number of spectators numbered in the mere hundreds, the fanatical legion gathered in their peluza (corner) were an imposing presence. 

Soon the corner was a colourful maelstrom of the blue, black and red of the Peluza Sud. The chanting intensified, banners were unfolded, and flags flew in the afternoon summer breeze as the crowd awaited the game’s commencement.

While Dinamo’s team was made up of teenagers and reserves, Steaua had some reliable journeymen with experience of Romania’s higher divisions. Players such as Róbert Elek, Rareș Enceanu and veteran Liviu Băjenaru had years of experience bouncing around the country’s upper tiers. Their manager, Daniel Opriţa, a former Steaua player, was hired with the express purpose of guiding the team up through the divisions. This was a balanced side assembled to dominate the league.

Upon both teams entering the field, however, something was amiss. The Dinamo line-up appeared to be severely numerically depleted. Surely there were still some players yet to emerge from the tunnel? Baffled as to what was occurring, I reasoned that there would simply be a postponement of kick-off until the remaining players appeared. No stadium announcements were forthcoming which may have indicated this to be the case. Bewilderingly, Dinamo had in fact lined out with seven players, the minimum allowed for a game to go ahead, with a bench entirely devoid of substitutes.

The whistle blew, the game kicked off; Steaua’s players piled forward while Dinamo scrambled to frustrate their opponents’ attacks. Following a short burst of sustained Steaua pressure, Dinamo’s captain, Samuel Stăncioiu, lay prostrate on the ground. After some medical attention, it was clear the injured party would be playing no further part in the action. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, three morose shrieks sounded from the referee’s whistle and the match came to its inevitable, premature end. It had lasted three minutes.

Howls and jeers rained down, and a lone smoke bomb was angrily detonated, while Steaua’s players applauded their faithful support. The bemused crowd was subsequently treated to a training game amongst Steaua’s squad, a seemingly apologetic overture to supporters left short-changed by what they had just witnessed. 

To add to an already surreal atmosphere, an enterprising group of Rapid Bucharest fans suddenly appeared in the upper echelons of an apartment block overlooking the stadium. They interrupted the madness ensuing on the field, taunting those below, hoisting the maroon and white flags of their team out of windows. They were greeted with a torrent of deafening whistles from their enemies in the stands.

This was a fixture haunted by the ghosts of teams past. The scene unfolding in this obscure, dilapidated stadium had suddenly morphed into a metaphorical, nightmarish triptych depicting the unravelling of Bucharest’s most storied clubs. Here were two incarnations of Steaua and Dinamo, one suffering the consequences of a murky buy-out, the latter unable to field a full team. The presence of a handful of Rapid’s followers above served as a reminder of that club’s 2006 UEFA Cup quarter-final defeat to Steaua. Imagining a repeat of that fixture in the coming years seemed entirely fantastical. 

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The events which transpired on that afternoon would have seemed scarcely credible to any follower of Bucharest’s major clubs in their heyday. Despite Steaua being awarded a 3-0 victory, the nature and brevity of the forfeiture rendered it a hollow success. The following day, local media suggested that Dinamo had thrown the game, fearing a cricket scoreline being inflicted upon them by their bitter rivals. By fielding a team and allowing the game to go ahead, they could avoid a heavier fine.

Splintering, strife and survival

The fragmentation of the Steaua entity is a microcosm of the problems experienced by so many clubs in Romania in the wake of communism’s collapse. With the ownership of top-flight teams largely in the hands of an oligarchical elite, these clubs have far too frequently been victims of their owners’ greedy pillaging or egomaniacal bids for public approval. 

Formerly obscure teams such as Unirea Urziceni and FC Vaslui graced the Champions League following significant investment. Alas, their footballing success was swiftly followed by descents into monetary ruin and dissolution after owners lost interest or had taken all they wanted from the clubs.

Steaua’s much-publicised saga is worth briefly relaying here. Following the army giving up ownership of its football team in 1998, Gigi Becali, one of Romania’s most infamous and bellicose businessmen, gained control of the club in 2003. When Becali was serving a three-year prison term for an opaque 1999 land exchange deal with the Ministry of Defence, the army challenged his ownership of the Steaua name. 

After prolonged legal wrangling, a Romanian court ultimately ruled in favour of the army and in 2014, Becali was forced to relinquish his right to use Steaua’s name. Following his team briefly competing without a badge or name, and despite threatening to rename the club after himself, Becali eventually settled on the more modest FC FCSB in 2017. 

Becali ensured FC FCSB retained a measure of financial clout, and they maintained their place in the top division. However, a portion of Steaua’s fans, mainly drawn from their Peluza Sud ultras group, had tired of their owner’s antics and backed the army team. 

CSA Steaua, under the army’s control, were established to ‘‘protect’’ the prestigious brand, according to then-president Colonel Cristian Petrea. They became part of the multi-sport brand of CSA Steaua, harkening back to communist times when football clubs were usually parts of wider sporting umbrellas.  

Meanwhile, in January 2020, news emerged of potential investment in Dinamo Bucharest by a conglomerate linked to the Abu Dhabi royal family. In a letter issued by the Abu Dhabi Business Development group, they noted the prerequisites for purchasing a majority share in the club. These were its remaining Liga I and obtaining a license to compete in the division for 2020/21. 

Nothing being straightforward in Romania’s footballing universe, however, the same month saw a supporter fund acquire a ten percent stake in Dinamo. This was due to its owner, Ionut Negoita, declaring an end to his bankrolling the club. In a testament to the undying devotion of Bucharest’s football community, supporters are paying out of their own pockets to prop up their team. Having initially raised around 100,000 euros, this money is to be used to preserve the club and pay its employees until a suitable investor appears. There will no doubt be many hoping it will come in the form of Arab riches.

Some magazines are meant to be kept

Steaua and Dinamo’s struggles have been mirrored by their neighbours, themselves no strangers to off-the-pitch issues. Like Steaua and Dinamo, Rapid Bucharest were previously administered by a government department, and were purchased by businessman George Copos after the Ministry of Transport ceded control. 

Rapid’s recent history has seen repeated financial strife punctuated by declarations of bankruptcy in 2012 and 2016. As is practically the norm in Romania, various teams hobbled out of the ruins of Rapid, 2016 witnessing the founding of two clubs in its name, while in 2017 the mayor of Bucharest formed Academia Rapid alongside three former players. 

This team would play Steaua in a fourth division promotion playoff and a Romanian Cup tie in 2018/19, games played in front of massive audiences previously unheard of in Romania’s lower leagues. Similarly to Steaua, naming rights were an issue with Academia. In 2018 they purchased the Rapid name for 400,000 euros and are currently in Romania’s second tier, albeit in the higher echelons of that division.

As another discouraging side note, Daco-Getica Bucharest, the Colentina stadium’s main tenants, withdrew from Romania’s second tier in November 2019, citing poor results and difficulties developing young players. Such occurrences are far from unusual in Romania’s footballing universe, with each season witnessing numerous dissolutions, reformations and bankruptcies of clubs throughout the country. 

Daco-Getica’s collapse saw the contracts of many young players ended, another saddening feature of the domestic game. With local teams unable or unwilling to support and develop young players, talented youths are increasingly leaving the country to participate in trials abroad or abandoning the sport entirely. It is no wonder Romania’s national team is struggling to qualify for international tournaments.   

A glimmer of hope

Amidst the gloom, there may yet be some cause for optimism amongst Bucharest’s long-suffering football fans. Steaua’s military management claim its main goal is to progress quickly through the divisions and compete in the top tier once again, and both results and investment in their squad suggest these professed ambitions are genuine. With Steaua’s new stadium due for completion by the end of 2020, it should put an end to its wandering the stadiums of Bucharest.  

The remainder of Steaua’s games in 2019 consisted of comfortable wins for the army team, many of them over Bucharest clubs such as Rapid’s second team and Sportivii. Victories by upwards of six and seven goals were frequent, a 15-goal drubbing of the impressively named Power Team Bucharest being a particularly resounding win, reflecting the superior resources of the army over its current competition. For now, their ascent up the divisions seems inevitable. Rapid are also pushing for promotion to the top division.

Ultimately, Bucharest’s football clubs have struggled to mirror the city’s impressive resurgence. While immediate European success is still hard to foresee, it is nonetheless possible to hope that we may witness the city’s slumbering triumvirate compete together at the top of the domestic game in coming years.  

By Jack McGarry

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