…aka The Fall and Rise of the Perennial Regie.
Saturday 9th March, 2019. 3.00pm. Rapid v Popești-Leordeni. AND
Saturday 23rd March, 2019. 3.30pm. Rapid v FCSB 2.
Stadionul Regie, Bucharest.
Effingham Grant was born in 1820 in Guernsey, the son of a captain in the British Army. Aged only sixteen he was appointed secretary to the British Consul in Bucharest, capital of what was then the small principality of Wallachia. He spent more than two decades working with the consul-general, a distant relative of his. During this period the city saw revolution, occupation by Ottoman, Austrian and Russian forces, a catastrophic fire, and finally the union of Wallachia with Moldavia. Grant himself, on behalf of the British government, played a crucial role in assisting the revolutionary leaders of 1848, among them the writer Constantin Rosetti and the sons of the boyar Dinicu Golescu. Effingham’s elder sister, Mary, had visited him early in his posting and decided to stay on; she worked as governess to another influential 1848 revolutionary, and then married Constantin and became an influential figure in the country in her own right, as writer and activist Maria Rosetti.
When the consul-general was transferred to Sarajevo in 1859, Grant dedicated himself to business. He had married Zoe Racovița, scion of the wealthy Golescu family, who had as their summer residence the Belvedere Palace and gardens on the western edge of the city. After Zoe’s uncles sold her the estate, the property was parcelled up and some was sold to the government. E. Grant & Company built the Belvedere foundry (the city’s first), while the Belvedere tobacco factory was constructed by the state. Other land was developed as the city’s main train station, Gara de Nord, and the extensive railway works nearby.
The Golescu-Grant family pile still stands, at the end of Strada Zinca Golescu, a remnant of the old boyars’ memory in a city that has forgotten more of its history than it cares to think about. After Effingham’s death, parcels of the old estate were developed as workers’ housing; one cartier was called Grant and its new streets were named after members of his family. Although this is now an area of tower blocks and the streets have changed their names, Grant himself still has a place in the local consciousness. A hefty industrial estate down by the Lacul Morii reservoir still bears the name Grantmetal. More visibly, traffic and trams are carried over the railway, in what is now known as the Giulești district, by the Grant Bridge. The bridge, a totally rebuilt version of a 1910 original, is a major feature of the landscape in whose concrete folds nestles Rapid Bucharest’s ground. In the press, the Giulești stadium, and the grand old club with which it is synonymous, is often described, for variety, as “beside the Grant Bridge”. If it wasn’t for the sad demolition of Stadionul Giulești I would probably never have paid a visit to Regie.
The tobacco factory expanded to include the headquarters of the national monopolies administration, Regia Monopolurilor de Stat. The area of employees’ housing immediately to the west is to this day known as Regie, though the monopolies directorate has long gone. The area is now dominated by student flats, which face the Polytechnic University across the river, and abut the sports complex to the north.
As far as I can work out, Regie is the oldest football ground currently in use in Bucharest, having been constructed in 1920. The stadium took its name from the name of the area at the time, Belvedere. By the late 1920s a club called Belvedere, with its own home on what had been the grounds of the Golescu-Grant family, was active in the capital’s second division; the team supplied two Romanian internationals in this period but never reached the national championship.
A group of students and professors at Bucharest University founded “Sporting Club Universitar Studențesc” in early 1916; the name was soon changed to Sportul Studențesc. In the 1920s the club dominated Romanian rugby, but it was only in 1937 that the football section achieved promotion to the top flight. They did, however, supply Romania with Jean Lǎpuşneanu, the national team’s goalkeeper at the 1930 World Cup. Shortly before the Second World War, Sportul managed to reach the Cup final and finish third in the national championship. Under communism, the club was reinvented as Știința and in the 1950s took up residence at the Belvedere stadium, which soon became known as Stadionul Regie. The club, as Sportul once more, won promotion to the top division in 1972 and enjoyed another cup final, and even a European foray, in the 1970s. The team was graced by a youthful Gheorghe Hagi in the mid-1980s: he scored 31 goals as Sportul were runners-up in the league in 1985-86. (Hagi was then “borrowed” by Steaua for the European Super Cup final, in which he scored the only goal to beat Dynamo Kiev. They never gave him back.) Sportul played in Liga 1 as recently as 2012, but petered out and folded in 2017.
The ground is owned by Ion Mincu University. Since Sportul Studențesc disappeared, the place has been used by a couple of other homeless lower-league teams. Judging by the thick (but definitely not straight) lines across the pitch, a rugby team has also been here recently.
The pavilion, Tribuna I, is on the western side of the ground. Rapid officials have emblazoned “This is Giulești” on the front of the press boxes. When it rains, only four or five rows at the back in the middle will stay dry. The north end is Peluza I, where the loudest singing and most boisterous bouncing goes on. It is largely full. There are flags, banners and a few firecrackers too. I am in Tribuna II, on the east side. Like the peluza, the basic structure of this stand is a mound of earth raised up above the level of the surrounding terrain: according to wikimapia.org, the earth was dug up during excavation for the metro in the early 1980s. The southern stand is empty.
It’s cost me 12 lei (about two quid) to get in. After the last ever match at Giulești I wasn’t sure I would bother coming to Rapid again: the football is pretty bad now that all the old stagers have gone, and it wouldn’t be the same without the crumbling stands, the building-site approach or the pitch-black stairwell, I thought. But there is a freshness to the atmosphere today. It’s sunny and unseasonably warm for early March; there’s a good turnout; blimey, there’s even a hot dog stand. The stands are close to the pitch, like at Voluntari or Juventus, so we can see the players clearly, even if (unlike at Juventus or Voluntari) the crowd noise is such that we can’t hear their calls. Someone brings a bike in and leans it against the fence that separates us from the playing surface. Like Giulești, but in a different, more intimate way, this ground has the pleasant, ‘real’ feel of being part of its surroundings. Students in block A8 can watch for free from their tiny balconies, and a few brave souls are sitting in armchairs with cans of beer, watching the game from a nearby rooftop. The handsome Orthodox church of St. Peter and St. Paul (paid for by public subscription in the 1930s) serenely overlooks the east stand – or would do, if its view weren’t obscured by the scoreboard.
Rapid line up with a Brazilian up front. The incredibly tall Lithuanian target man Matulevičius has flattered to deceive so far this season, with his poor touch and lumbering gait. He’s on the bench, a plan B, a pound-shop Fellaini. Can the short, stocky Guilherme Fagundes, aka [cringe] “Robinho”, impress? Captain is 34-year-old right-back Ionuț Voicu, a man with 200 top-flight appearances under his belt and who represented Rapid in a UEFA Cup match sixteen years ago, alongside Daniel Niculae and Vasile Maftei, two men who were also his teammates last season in Liga 4. Voicu is attempting to single-handedly fill the leadership/badge-kissing void left by their acrimonious departures last year: this is manifest in his careering around, heroically leaping into challenges like a human dynamo, no apparent concern for his own safety. One of several winter acquisitions is Cătălin Hlistei on the wing, who has dipped down a division, having been a regular starter for the village team who are top of Liga 2, Sportul Snagov. The pull of playing in front of more than just one man and his dog is evident.
Popești-Leordeni is a small satellite town just beyond the Bucharest city limits. Against them, Rapid score early, after a goalkeeping error from a free-kick. They quickly, however, forget how to play football, behaving like a group of bewildered strangers who never expected to be asked to work together to achieve the placement of a sphere between two predetermined posts for the enjoyment of four thousand paying spectators. Some knuckle-chewingly awful defending gifts the visitors a deserved equaliser, and they pose the greater attacking threat until deep into the second half. The home goalkeeper Drăghia, who can’t seem to decide whether his first name is Andrei or Virgil (surely a no-brainer), keeps his team in it. The pitch is pretty terrible, incidentally, but we can’t blame the surface for such a poor showing.
Rapid are coming off an unexpected and dispiriting defeat away at Progresul Spartac, and this is not much of an improvement. The fans have resorted to booing one of the Popești players, who left Rapid in January. Finally, ten minutes or so before the end, the home team retake the lead with a low shot from the edge of the area. The visitors crumble and the game finishes 4-1 thanks to some fine play by Hlistei and Robinho. The latter stages, as so often in this country, are peppered with some spectacularly implausible and hilarious dives that have even the locals guffawing with something between incredulity and projected embarrassment. How a fit, presumably self-respecting young man can go from the vertical to the horizontal, in mid-air, at such speed, with assistance from neither another person nor gym equipment, is a mystery, but wondrous to behold.
Overall this has been an unexpectedly delightful experience. The smaller ground suits the smaller crowds of this lower-league sleeping giant. The noise, while not as intense as in a proper stadium, doesn’t float away to the sky too much. You’re close to the action. It’s a friendly venue that isn’t about to collapse. And it’s a sunny day.
Two weeks later, with free entry to the peluza for women, children and students, there’s an even bigger crowd. It’s sunny and warm, again. And there’s not only a hot-dog stand but the club shop has reappeared after what feels like years. Today’s guests are FCSB 2, the B-team of Romania’s richest club. They are not doing well in the league, but they’re not expected to. They don’t even really serve much of a purpose, since none of them are likely to be called up to play for the big boys in the Liga 1 title race: Gigi Becali has plenty of well-paid talent in the main squad. But they do play like a team, like they’ve practised together or something. They haven’t brought any support, which is a shame because we like a bit of needle, and hardcore Steaua country is only ever a short tram ride southward.
The peluza trots out its favourite anti-Steaua songs, which are legion. All the types are here in the tribuna too. The dad swinging his young daughter around joyously in time to the club song, “Suntem peste tot acasă”. The unsmiling old bloke who likes to yell sarcastic remarks at the players, sending all the people around him into fits of giggles. The well-groomed, slim young couple in matching replica tops and skinny jeans. The group of men in their twenties, who look and sound perfectly civil but have skulls tattooed on the back of their necks. The well-to-do, middle-aged couple who tap their feet and drum their fingers contentedly in time with the chants. The grizzly older fellow in beanie and drug rug* who has teeth missing and an impressive collection of miniatures, which he gets through before the second half kicks off. Former Rapid (and Shakhtar, Dinamo, Romania, Brescia, Galatasaray, etc.) coach Mircea Lucescu is here too, apparently, as are Maftei and Niculae. The estimable Maftei nowadays has a distinguished streak of grey through his mighty beard. I get to see this up close the next morning, when we are both jogging round my local park. But we are doing laps of the lake in opposite directions, so although I see him twice it’s only very brief each time. He is, let’s be honest, quite a lot fitter than me, but then he’s a whole year younger. What a beard.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, pint-size 19-year-old Marian Drăghiceanu is making his debut, having signed from top-flight Dunărea Călărași in January. As a pre-teen he was hailed as Romania’s best junior player two years running. He is lively and skilful. After a bizarre piece of kamikaze kung-fu goalkeeping leaves a virtually open goal into which Robinho fails to kick the ball, Drăghiceanu takes matters into his own hands and places a low shot unerringly into the corner of the net. One-nil. Early in the second half he pops up again to finish a parried cross from Oanea with a left-footed volley from the edge of the six-yard box. Two goals on debut, and any anxiety about the result of this match is assuaged. Rapid have been dominant and their new signings show promise. So a fine new ground, a bit of new historical knowledge, and some decent young players. It seems to come and go in waves, but Rapid is worth my time again.
*I just looked up “what do you call those hoodies hippies wear” and the internet showed me the right picture and told me simply: “drug rug”. It’s new to me, even though I used to own one.
Jianu, Angela. A Circle of Friends: Romanian Revolutionaries and Political Exile, 1840-1859. Link here.