Simply an excuse to mostly ignore a boring game from 2018 and instead to delve into Romania’s very first international fixture, a right royal meeting with Yugoslavia almost a century ago…
At 5.00pm on 8th June 1922, the national team of Romania took to the field for its very first official international match. The venue was the Topčider area of the city of Belgrade, capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The occasion, a royal wedding.
Love thy neighbour
These two young states had existed in their current form only since the end of the Great War less than four years earlier, and their territories represented significant changes in the map of Europe. Romania’s land and population had been roughly doubled by the post-war peace treaties, thanks to the acquisition of huge chunks of territory from both the defunct Austria-Hungary and a Russia that was being turned upside-down. South-western parts of the dismembered Hapsburg empire, meanwhile, were awarded independence, and united themselves with the Kingdom of Serbia and Montenegro.
This was no doubt a strange and unsettling time to be a European monarch, poor things. King Ferdinand of Romania was a Catholic German noble, also related to the Austro-Hungarian emperors (dethroned in 1918), the Portuguese royal family (abolished 1910) and the Bulgarian tsars (still going at the time). His wife, Marie of Edinburgh, a.k.a. Regina Maria, was a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and thus cousin to the Rasputin-loving Russian tsarina (executed 1918), Kaiser Wilhelm II (abdicated 1918) and British king George V (still going).
In early 1921 the Romanian ruling couple had married off their eldest son Carol to the Greek princess Helen, and his sister Elisabeth to Helen’s brother George, thus weaving the family into the royal line of Greece. Today in Belgrade would see another bond sealed with a neighbouring state: their third child, 22-year-old Maria, would tie the knot with 33-year-old King Aleksandar, symbolically cementing the good relations between the two nations. This would also mark the first anniversary of the ‘Little Entente’, a three-way treaty involving another new country, Czechoslovakia. And what better way to celebrate than with a football match, as the centrepiece of a programme of athletic events contested in a spirit of camaraderie? Alexander and Ferdinand were joined for the occasion by Ferdinand and Marie’s son-in-law, the newly-crowned King George II of Greece. The prize for the footballing victors was to be the Friendship Cup, also known as the King Aleksandar Cup.
The national team of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (colloquially known as Yugoslavia, although it would not change its name officially until 1929) had played just three matches to date. The first two were at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, where they lost 7-0 to Czechoslovakia and 4-2 to Egypt. The third yielded another defeat to the Czechoslovaks, 6-1.
Facing the foreigners
Although Romania had never yet fielded a national team, those running the game had realised that the country’s footballers needed more contact with foreign teams. The 1921-22 season was the first to include teams from the newly-acquired regions of Transylvania, the Banat and Bucovina, all of which had a footballing head-start on account of having been part of Austria-Hungary until a couple of years earlier. The national championship final was contested by Victoria Cluj, from Transylvania, and Chinezul Timișoara, from the Banat.
Fixtures had, occasionally, been held between representative sides of cities: indeed, the first encounter between Belgrade and Bucharest had taken place just a couple of months earlier, on 9 April. The game had attracted a record seven thousand spectators to where the Arcul de Triumf rugby stadium now stands, in the north of Bucharest. The locals, though missing players from Venus, Romanian champions in 1920 and 1921, due to a petty dispute, earned a 2-2 draw. Two days later, after torrential rain, Bucharest’s current top team Tricolor were destroyed by reigning Belgrade champions Beogradski, 9-0.
Romania’s trainer was Teofil Moraru, a Transylvanian former shot-putter and one of the founders of the club Universitatea Cluj. That club provided the only ethnic Romanian to the line-up on 8 June: 21-year-old forward, team captain and economics student Aurel Guga.* The rest of the team were Germans, Jews and Hungarians, as was customary for football teams in Romania’s former Hapsburg lands, reflecting the urban populations in those regions. No team from Bucharest or anywhere else in the “old kingdom” supplied a player. From Timișoara clubs came Ritter, Zimmermann, Frech and Schiller; the city of Cluj provided Hirsch and Jacobi besides Guga; Oradea sent Ronnay and Hönigsberg; from Arad and Târgu Mureș came Auer and Szilágy respectively.
Although the team travelled by train, sitting on wooden benches, the story goes that defender Elemér Hirsch, an aristocratic lawyer – and national figure skating champion – paid for the team’s bespoke kit to be made and sent from England, stipulating that the shorts should include a rear pocket for a handkerchief, to mop any perspiration from the brow.
The Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were managed by a Slavonian Croat called Veljko Ugrinić, who had helped to establish both the Yugoslav football federation and Olympic committee. His team, even more than their opponents’, was dominated by players from clubs that had recently been in Hungary. Ten players came from Zagreb teams, and one from Subotica – in northern Serbia, just 75km from the Romanian border.***
In front of six thousand spectators, with half-time approaching, the two sides traded penalties – both awarded by the Austrian referee for handball in the area – which first Schiffer and then Ronnay converted. In the second half, according to newspaper reports, the Romanians dominated and Guga’s winner on 65 minutes was no more than they deserved for their impressive display. Thus the visitors secured the first ever King Aleksandar I Cup.
The Belgrade newspaper Politika was displeased with the Yugoslavs’ performance, and bemoaned the lack of players from the capital. The following day, the Belgrade team itself gave some substance to this view with a 6-0 win over the Bucharest XI; however, again missing the Venusians, this may have simply demonstrated once again the footballing inferiority of the Romanian “old kingdom”, compared with the newly gained territories.
As the Ripensia magazine article notes, both Aurel Guga, Romania’s first captain and scorer of the winning goal, and King Aleksandar, would meet early and tragic ends. Guga perished aged 38 when the car he was in was driven into a river, while the King of Yugoslavia, who had by then made himself dictator, was assassinated by a Bulgarian revolutionary in Marseille in 1934, when he was 45. Dezsö Jacobi was even more unfortunate: he died in Vienna, aged just 24, of complications after sustaining an injury in a warm-up match before the 1924 Olympics. Hirsch, a Jew, was saved from a probable demise at Auschwitz in 1944, either by a former employee or by the Romanian consul in Hungarian-occupied Cluj, who supposedly smuggled him over the border to Romania in the boot of his diplomatic car, depending on which source you read.
Romania and Yugoslavia would face each other another twenty times before the Second World War interrupted the sporting scene. The Yugoslavs got to keep the King Aleksandar I Cup after their fifth victory in 1930, but still they kept on playing. Neither team was great shakes on the global scene quite yet. At the 1924 Olympics in Antwerp, both teams were dumped out of the football tournament in the preliminary round. Romania lost 6-0 to the Netherlands, while Yugoslavia shipped seven against Uruguay. The road ahead would be long.
For an excellent article about a classic encounter between the two sides in a 1978 World Cup qualifier, go here. And to read a similarly terrific piece about Romania’s greatest ever ethnic Serb football player, double-European-Cup-winner Miodrag Belodedici, follow this link here.
Fast forward back to the present
This time around, the visit of Serbia for a crucial match in the UEFA Nations League achieves that rare feat: filling the National Arena! Or almost; the official attendance is over 48,000. The Nations League group is finely poised: Romania have drawn 2-2 with Serbia in Belgrade, and 0-0 with Montenegro in Ploiești, and won 2-1 in Lithuania.
Sadly for the neutrals, neither Matić nor Milinković-Savić starts. A goalless game ensues, enlivened by a sending-off (of Gabriel Tamaș), a missed penalty (by Dušan Tadić), and some terrific goalkeeping (by Ciprian Tătărușanu). The black-t-shirted local ultras engage in call-and-response nationalistic chants with their cordial visitors, who are very few in number, and spread around the stands, but do have a Serbian Kosovo flag to wave.
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The Romanian federation is subsequently punished for this by the team having to play its next home fixture, against Lithuania in November, behind closed doors. Politics has no place in football, of course, as should be obvious from my entire blog.
Above all, the highlight (for John) is spotting a boy a few rows in front of us whose hair sprouts from no fewer than THREE CROWNS. Spotter’s badge to that man for such a rarity. We go home happy.
* Strangely, Guga had been born in Austria-Hungary, in a village on the Danube which was, by 1922, part of Yugoslavia.
** In fact, Bačka Subotica and Chinezul Timișoara, under their Magyar names Bácska and Kinizsi, used to compete against each other in the southern division of the Hungarian championship before the war.
Bibliography of actual books:
Flamaropol, Mihai. Fotbal cadran românesc.
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