Nagyvárad in 1910 was a prosperous city in central Hungary, with a 90% Hungarian population. A commercial and transport hub, the city was an early hotbed of the game of football, which had arrived in 1902 with inhabitants returning from study or work abroad or in Budapest. The sport was gaining in popularity, but there was not yet an organised club to represent the town in matches against Kolozsvár (Cluj) or Temesvár (Timișoara). In May 1910, Nagyváradi Athletikai Club was officially formed, in the Emke cafe, and affiliation to the Hungarian football federation was sought. On 31 July NAC played its first game, against the Kolozsvar railway workers’ club KVSC, and in January 1912 a home ground was secured in Rhedey Park (where the zoo now stands). The next month, a touring team from England came to town: Bishop Auckland, the Northern League champions that season, beat NAC 8-0.
The club immediately joined the eastern division of the Southern Hungarian League; in 1913 they won 25 of their 31 matches. In 1914, as champions of the division, NAC were entitled to participate in the national finals tournament in Budapest, but this competition never took place due to the outbreak of war in June. After the war, Transylvania became part of Romania, as the Great Union was declared and then ratified by the treaty of Trianon. Nagyvárad found itself 12 km beyond Hungary’s borders, and was now officially called Oradea, but the club and the city were still dominated by Hungarians. One of the most talented local players unearthed during this period was Elemér Berkessy (future Barcelona midfielder and Grimsby Town manager – in 1954 he became the first foreign manager in the English league).
Transylvanian teams joined the Romanian national championship in 1921-22, but NAC – now also known as Clubul Atletic Oradea – were beaten to the Oradea town title by Staruința and then Înțelegerea for the first few seasons and thus did not qualify for the national finals until 1924-25. They beat Universitatea Cluj and Jahn Cernauti, before defeat in the final by Chinezul Timișoara – who would win the first six Romanian titles after the Great Union. In 1932-33, after another spell confined to the regional tournament, CAO appeared in an expanded national competition, organised as two parallel leagues of seven teams; they finished second in their division, while local rivals Crișana came third in the other. Two years later, with the national league reorganised into one division, CAO finished as runners-up, sandwiched between the two dominant clubs of the period, Ripensia Timișoara and Venus București. In 1938-39 the club was relegated to a restructured Divizia B, where they remained until the next war brought a strange upturn in fortunes.
In 1932, the management of the club decided that contact with football in other countries would help the development of the sport in Oradea. So they undertook a twelve-match tour of France and Switzerland, during which they beat Olympique Lillois, who would that season become inaugural French national champions, 5-2. The following year the tour was to France and its North African colonies, and Oradea was spreading its fame, and that of Romanian football, around the continent. During the interwar period CAO supplied eighteen Romanian internationals, the vast majority of whom were, incidentally, ethnic Hungarians, Jews and Germans.
Players who starred in CAO’s green and white stripes in this period included: Ferenc/Francisc Ronnay, the first ever goalscorer for the Romanian national team (against Yugoslavia in 1922); Nicolae/Miklos Kovacs/Covaci, a forward who was one of only five men to play at the first three World Cups; Gyula/Iuliu Baratky, a Hungarian from Oradea who opted to stay in Romania throughout the second war, becoming a legend at Rapid Bucharest; and Iuliu/Gyula Bodola, a prolific goalscorer throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Thanks to the Bucharest chief of police’s misuse of funds for his club Venus Bucuresti, Bodola was transferred to the capital in 1937.
A remarkable title
The Dictate of Vienna in August 1940 annexed northern Transylvania, including Oradea, to Hitler’s ally Hungary, while Romania was in the throes of its own right-wing military dictatorship. Many footballers of German or Hungarian origin who were at clubs in Bucharest, Timișoara, Arad or other parts of Romania, crossed the new border into this region and joined clubs in Oradea/Nagyvárad or Cluj/Kolozsvár; many of them signed for CAO – now, once again, known officially by its Hungarian name, NAC. After one season back in a Transylvanian league, NAC were promoted to the Hungarian top division. They finished second in 1942-43 and then in 1943-44 they became the first team from outside Budapest to win the Hungarian championship in its 44-year history, finishing a huge 13 points ahead of the second placed team Ferencvaros.
The players who helped the club to this historic achievement included some of the major Hungarian and Romanian footballers of the age…
Gyula Lorant, from western Hungary, was only 20 years old during NAC’s title-winning season. He went on to play at Vasas, alongside Ladislao Kubala, who in 1949 fled the incoming Communist government and formed a team of Hungarian footballers who would play exhibition matches around western Europe. Lorant tried to escape and join Kubala, but was captured and interred, until the national team coach secured his release. Lorant played for Hungary from 1949 until 1955, encompassing the greatest period of Hungarian success: he played in central defence for the Aranycsapat, the ‘Mighty Magyars’ of the early 1950s.
Besides winning the Romanian championship with UT Arad and three more Hungarian titles with Honved, Lorant went on to coach Bayern Munich in the late ’70s.
Gyula/Iuliu Bodola was an ethnic Hungarian born in what is now Brasov (then Brasso) in 1912. After a hugely successful seven-year spell as a prolific striker with CAO in the 1930s, and an equally fruitful three years at Venus Bucuresti, he headed back to Oradea after the annexation of northern Transylvania by Hungary in 1940, and played for NAC for five years. After the war he moved to Budapest and represented MTK. During his years in Romania he played 48 times for the Romanian national team, while from 1940 to 1943 he was a regular for Hungary. Remarkably, he held the Romanian international goalscoring record for 66 years, from 1931 until 1997, when Gheorghe Hagi overtook his total of 30 goals. The municipal stadium in Oradea is now named after him.
Jozsef Perenyi, known in Romania as Iosif Petschovski or simply ‘Peci’, was another young member of the successful NAC team and was capped by Hungary at the age of 21. An attacking midfielder from Timisoara, of Hungarian extraction, Peci would later become a hero in Arad due to his starring role in UTA‘s three league titles in the 1940s, and then won two further championships with CCA Bucuresti (the future Steaua) in the 1950s. His first game for Romania was against Hungary in Budapest in 1945, alongside Spielmann and Simatoc; he scored, but Hidegkuti and Puskas scored two each in a 7-2 win for the Magyars. Petschovschi is one of the all-time greats of Romanian football.
Ferenc Sarvari, known in Romania as Francisc Spielmann, top-scored for NAC in their title-winning season, with 23 goals; he was also the Hungarian player of the year. The coach of the side throughout NAC’s Hungarian period was 1920s CAO hot-shot Ferenc Ronnay. Augustin/Gusztav Juhasz, also spelled (in Romania) as Iuhași, had been a regular in midfield for the Romanian national side since 1934, when he was also part of the CAO team that finished second in the Romanian championship. Together with Bodola and Rudolf Demetrovits/Demenyi, Juhasz was part of the great Venus Bucuresti team of the late 1930s. Nicolae Simatoc, a reserve, was the only ethnic Romanian in the NAC squad; he was kept out of the starting line-up by the all-Timisorean midfield of Petschovschi, Demetrovits and Juhasz. Simatoc, known as Miklos Szegedi in Hungary, would go on to spend one season alongside Kubala at Barcelona, as well as two years at Inter Milan.
The 1944-45 Hungarian season was abandoned after four games due to the movement of the front, and NAC never played in the Hungarian league again: the annexed region was occupied by Romanian troops in 1944 and awarded to Romania at the end of the war. NAC/CAO changed its name to Libertatea Oradea in 1948, and then to ICO Oradea the following year after the Soviet takeover of Romania. Petschovschi, Bodola and Ronnay left for Ferar Cluj – the third-placed team in Hungary in 1943-44 but also now returned to Romanian sovereignty – while five of the championship-winning team would form the core of a new dominant power in Romania, ITA Arad.
By 1948-49, only three players remained from the great NAC team of 1943-44. And yet ICO Oradea became Romanian champions. Gheorghe Vaczi, a Hungarian who was capped by Romania, contributed 21 goals in 26 matches. The coach that year was Nicolae Kovacs, former CAO player and brother of the Stefan Kovacs who would coach Ajax to great success in the early 1970s.
As Progresul Oradea, the club won the Romanian Cup in 1956. After a brief period as CS Oradea, the name was changed to Crisana Oradea – extremely confusingly, because this had been the name of a completely different club in the town before the war. After yo-yoing between the top two divisions for a few years (Ronnay returned as coach in 1962-63), in 1963 the club folded. That same year another Oradean club won promotion to the top division as Crisul Oradea: this club is now FC Bihor. The city of Oradea blazed brightly in the region’s football firmament, with some of Hungary and Romania’s greatest players of the age – one cup, and a league title in two countries – but it is now very much in the shadows: FC Bihor are struggling to avoid relegation to Liga III.
Maroti, Ștefan (2010). “Constituirea și activitatea echipei de fotbal Clubul Atletic Oradea (Nagyváradi Athletikai Club), 1910-1944.” Palestrica Mileniului III – Civilizație și Sport, 11 (3), Jul-Sep 2010, pp. 252-256.