If there is any city in Romania which could be called a hotbed of football, then the capital is it. As we write, Bucharest is home to three Liga 1 (first division) clubs: Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid. Several more, including Sportul Studentesc, play in the lower divisions.
An introduction to Romanian football
While the Romanian national team has a far from impressive international record (a World Cup quarter-final in 1994, lost on penalties to Sweden, remains the national team’s best effort), it has given the world some talented players and coaches over the years - the great Stefan Kovacs led Ajax to two European Cups in 1972 and 1973 - while its clubs, from the end of the 1970s until the fall of communism at least, had a more than decent record in international competition: Steaua Bucharest were the first Eastern European winners of the European Cup, in 1986, beating Barcelona on penalties in Seville.
Steaua were not, however, the first Romanian side to do well in Europe. Dinamo Bucharest reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1981, losing over two legs to Liverpool, about to win their third European Cup in five years at a time when English teams dominated the competition. Had this gone in during the first leg at Anfield however (when the score was 0-0) it might all have been different.
The next season Universitatea Craiova made the quarter-finals of the European Cup, losing to Bayern Munich, while a year later the same team went as far as the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, losing on away goals to Benfica.
It is Steaua’s European Cup victory in 1986 which remains the greatest achievement of Romanian football internationally, although it should be said that in those post-Heysel days there were no English teams to worry about, and the roll-call of teams Steaua had to beat to get to the final is hardly impressive: Honved Budapest, Velje, Kuusysi Lahti and Anderlecht. Such is the luck of the draw, however.
The final itself was extraordinary. Played in Seville in front of a crowd almost entirely made up of Barcelona fans, Steaua parked the proverbial bus in front of their opponents and played perhaps the least exciting 120 minutes of football seen in a European Cup final. Yet the tactic worked. Then, having made it to a penalty shoot-out, Steaua goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam saved all four Barcelona penalties, while Marius Lacatus and Gabriel Balint scored for Steaua. Tens of thousands of supporters greeted the team as they landed at Otopeni, and Nicolae Ceausescu personally handed each member of the Steaua squad an award. Worth noting is that the dictator’s eldest son, Valentin, had for a number of years been the de facto general manager of the club and can be seen in all the official photos celebrating with the team on the Seville pitch after the final.
Still under Valentin Ceausescu’s patronage, Steaua reached the European Cup final again, in 1989, though they were this time soundly thrashed by Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary Milan - still the best football team in history - but that was to be the swansong of Romanian club football in Europe. Steaua’s run to the semi-finals of the (much-cheapened) UEFA Cup in 2005 (where they lost to the less than mighty Middlesborough) was something of a mirage.
Since the 1989 revolution Romania’s best players have been free to leave and play for foreign clubs, and local sides - who once had first pick of all the country’s best players - have been left with the dregs, joined of late by hundreds of cheap, third-rate imports. This has had a dreadful impact on the local game. The vast majority of first division matches are played in front just a handful of spectators, with only the big derbies involving Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo attracting decent crowds. The game remains valuable to local television channels, however: the rights to show the next three seasons recently fetched more than €150 million at auction.
Bucharest’s teamsThough Dinamo and Rapid fans would beg to differ, the biggest Bucharest club (and indeed the biggest and best-supported in the country) is Steaua. Founded in 1947 as ASA Bucuresti, the sports division of the Romanian army, the club adopted the name Steaua only in the early 1960s. Romania’s most successful team, they have won the league championship 25 times, as well as the European Cup in 1986. They remain the only Romanian team to win a European trophy. They used to play at Steaua Stadium (known colloquially as Ghencea) in the southwest of Bucharest, a once fearsome place for visiting teams but which now - much like the team that plays there - is a rather shabby affair in need of a major overhaul. Most games now, however, are played at the Arena Nationala.
The club - once the pride of the Romanian army of course - is now the plaything of the racist, homophobic and generally awful 'businessman' Gigi Becali, a convicted fraudster - amongst other things - who has only just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. Becali hires and fires coaches at will, and has a habit of interfering with team selection. It is no wonder that Steaua have had no fewer than 20 different coaches over the past 10 years. Becali is currently in dispute with the army over use of the brand name Steaua: indeed, the official name of the club is currently FCSB.
Steaua's eternal rivals Dinamo were founded at much the same time as Steaua, as the sports club of the Romanian Ministry of the Interior. Dinamo have won the championship 17 times. In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolution, there was a half-hearted attempt to abandon the Dinamo name as it had become associated (everywhere in Eastern Europe, not merely in Romania) with the secret police (in Romania’s case the Securitate). Instead, Unirea Tricolor (the name of a pre-World War II Bucharest team) was briefly adopted; it did not catch on, as neither players nor supporters would have anything to do with it. The idea was quickly, quietly, dropped, and Dinamo continued to be Dinamo. Although now in private hands, the Ministry of the Interior continues to hold a small stake in the team, and owns the land the club’s stadium is built on. The team laughably likes to be known as Cainii rosii (The Red Dogs) possibly the most ridiculous nickname in world football (all the more so seeing as it is self-inflicted).
Rapid - as the name suggests - were the team of the workers, and are the oldest of the big three, having been founded in the 1920s by workers at the notorious Grivita works in the north west of the city. From the same railyards came Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania's brutal communist leader who led the country from 1948-1965. Yet perversely, for much of the communist period Rapid were (quite deliberately) starved of funds, and spent a number of seasons in the 1970s and 1980s in the second division. Indeed, Sportul Studentesc were for much of the 1980s the third club in the capital. Having won their first league title in 1967, Rapid had to wait until 1999 to win it again. In total, they now have three league titles to their name.
The most celebrated of Bucharest's many other, smaller clubs is Sportul Studentesc, originally the team of Bucharest University. Founded in 1916 they are one of the oldest in the country. During the mid-1980s, when a young Gheorghe Hagi, probably Romania's best ever player, plied his trade here, they were one of the best teams in the country, finishing as runners-up in the league in 1986. For a number of years they yo-yoed between the first and second divisions, though a brief renaissance under Chelsea legend Dan Petrescu in 2005 saw them finish fourth. Always a young team, Sportul's youth system is one of the best and certainly most productive in the country. Alas the club have of late fallen on hard times, and currently play in Liga IV,the fourth division.
Juventus Bucuresti have a long (if hardly distinguished) history, a club originally founded in 1924 whose best league position was third in 1936. In 1952 the team was moved by Romania’s communist authorities to Ploiesti and renamed Petrolul (the practice of moving teams from one city to another continues in Romania to this day). The current Juventus Bucuresti was founded in 1992, and plays at a small yet neat and tidy stadium in the Colentina district in the northeast of the city. Much of the team’s support is local and in this respect they are one of the few teams who can claim to have genuine local support. Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid draw supporters from all over the city. Juventus play in Liga 3, the third division.
Just outside the capital, Concordia Chiajna play in the first division, and are followed by a group of English, American and Canadian fans known as Concordia's Foreign Legion, famous for doing this.
Watching football in Bucharest
While we probably haven’t done a great job of selling Romanian football to you so far, the fact remains that there will always be a certain type of visitor to a foreign city whose first order of business is to see if there is a football match on he (or she) can go and watch. We know, because we fall into that category. If you do fancy taking in a game while in Bucharest, here is a quick guide to where and when might be best to do so.
The best games for atmosphere are the derbies between Steaua and Dinamo (and, when Rapid are in the first division) Steaua and Rapid, and Rapid and Dinamo. These derbies are usually played at the Arena Nationala. Getting tickets for these games via official channels can be difficult, however, although finding a tout outside the grounds on match day is easy. As ticket prices are cheap, even paying a tout through the nose will cost far less than you would be used to paying at a stadium at home. If you do manage to get tickets via official channels (and all the three main Bucharest clubs have box offices at the grounds) expect to pay from 5 lei to 100 lei for a ticket. Getting tickets for any other Steaua, Rapid or Dinamo home game is easy, and in most cases can be bought on the day, as you go in. At Sportul Studentesc, entry is free.
Though there are idiots from all three groups of supporters who like to think they are reliving the 1980s at English football grounds, real trouble at Romanian football matches is rare, as games are heavily policed and supporters kept well segregated. In fact, supporters are usually more likely to get a wallop from the gendarms than from opposing fans. At all three stadiums however, always try and sit as close as possible to the Tribuna Oficiala, and don’t act like a muppet. Getting to grounds early is a good idea too: in Romania you can sit where you like, as the row and seat numbers printed on tickets are usually pure fiction. Getting to grounds can often be a challenge in itself, however, as nearby roads are closed on match days even to public transport. Prepare to do a fair bit of walking.
Dates of fixtures change frequently for the sake of television schedules. The best place to find out who is playing and when, is probably the website of local sports newspaper GSP.ro, which sometimes has some sport alongside photos of half-naked women.