“What do you say, Geza – shall we start a football team too?”
“Let’s try, Grigore…”
With this brief exchange from the summer of 1923 in the tool shop at Grivița railway works, author Ioan Chirilă introduces the birth of Rapid București in his 1968 book Glasul Roților de Tren (“The Sound of Train Wheels”). Geza Ginzer and Grigore Grigoriu were among the founders of the Romanian Railways Sports Club. The football arm subsumed Excelsior București, an earlier foundation (under the original name of FC Victoria) by local railway workers, which had just finished bottom of the Bucharest football league.
Grigore himself, employed as a lathe operator in the railway yards, had played in midfield for the very successful Venus team for several years; he would be the new club’s captain, with Ginzer as coach. The legend tells that the team’s first kit was made by Mrs Grigoriu, the distinctive cherry colour chosen supposedly because it was easier to wash. In these early days the team played at the ground of another older club, Cercul Atletic București, based next to the Arc de Triumf.
The nascent club flirted with extinction in almost its earliest days: in January 1925 it was suspended from the Bucharest championship owing to (unspecified?) difficulties with equipment and players. But the following year they were reinstated in the city’s second tier and, although Grigoriu was by now winning the Bucharest league title with Juventus, the team known as CFR (the initials of the Romanian Railways company) was a rising force locally. On their first appearance in the capital’s eight-team top division in 1931, CFR finished second behind Venus, who went on to win the national title.
CFR were in great shape going into the first season of a unified national league format in 1932. No longer would regional champions play off against one another for the title of champions of Romania; instead, two series of seven teams would play a league, and the two table-toppers would play to decide the champion. 11 September 1932 marked the railwaymen’s first national league match: at the Romcomit Arena in central Bucharest, they came back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 against the powerful Ripensia Timișoara, Romania’s first professional football club. Again, however, CFR finished the season in second place (behind Ripensia, who would beat Universitatea Cluj in the final – and win the next three titles too).
6 June 1935 marks the next great date in the club’s history: CFR faced the all-conquering Ripensia in the final of the Romanian Cup. Ripensia had won the inaugural edition of the competition the previous year, and were also reigning league champions. They had not lost to CFR since that first encounter three years earlier. Ripensia had scored twelve goals in their four earlier rounds of the cup (they also averaged three goals a game in the league); but CFR had scored fifteen in theirs. In front of 20,000 people at the ONEF stadium, close to where the Palace of the Parliament now stands, Ştefan Barbu’s extra-time winner secured the Bucharest team’s unlikely first trophy. The score was 6-5.
Although the team finished only seventh in the 1935-36 season, Barbu was the league’s top scorer, the first CFR player to achieve the feat. He scored 23 goals in a 22-game season.
This was a time of significant development for the club – both on and off the pitch, as they say. Iuliu Baratky signed from his hometown club CAO Oradea in 1936 and the Hungarian/Romanian striker would pass into legend as the “blond wonder”, one of the greatest ever to grace the capital. In the same year, his fellow Hungarian/Romanian dual international Stefan Auer (known in Hungary as István Avar) also arrived at Grivița after a hugely successful time at Ujpest.
Cup runneth over
Now renamed Rapid București, in four of the next five seasons, from 1936-37 up to the abandonment of organised football due to the war, the club finished as runners-up in the league. Even more remarkably, in six consecutive years (1937-42) they won the Romanian Cup. Baratky scored at least once in all seven cup final matches in which he played (including three replays in 1940!).
Arsenal of the East
A new stadium next to the Grivița works was begun in 1936, paid for by money raised from Romanian Railways employees, and completed before the end of that year. The intention was to inaugurate it with a match against reigning Austrian champions Admira Vienna (now Admira Wacker). Apparently the Austrians came to Bucharest, marvelled at the new stadium, even had photographs taken on the pitch… but then the game was played at the ONEF stadium instead. It is unclear from contemporary sources why this was, just as it is unclear why the first official match at Giulești did not take place until November 1937 (the match, against Jiul Petroșani, attracted just 800 spectators.
On 10 June 1939, the new stadium was finally officially opened. The occasion was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the first railway to operate in Romania (between Bucharest and Giurgiu). The event was dubbed Ceferiada – which we might translate as something like “The Railiad” – and it lasted for two weeks in total, by public demand. Romanian Railways was an extremely influential, modernising force at this time, being described as “the nation’s second army”; it was also the biggest landowner in Bucharest in the early twentieth century. Accordingly, among the many important figures present at the celebration, in front of twenty thousand spectators, was King Carol II himself. You can watch archive video of the event here (in Romanian). It includes many formalities and a lot of those salutes.
The stadium’s design was based on that of Arsenal’s stadium in London; the rounded ends characteristic of Highbury led to the new ground at Giulești being nicknamed Potcoava, “the horseshoe”. Arsenal were redeveloping their stands at the time, and there is an apocryphal story that Rapid’s owner took a trip to London to stay with relatives and pinched a bit of the unwanted old banked terrace to put in his new construction. Although the pitch was of cinder rather than grass, the capacity of more than 12,000 made it the country’s biggest as well as its finest.
The late 1930s saw Rapid’s first foray into European competition. In 1937 league champions Venus had been invited to be Romania’s first representatives in the eleventh edition of the prestigious Mitropa Cup, also known as the Central European Cup. This annual knockout tournament involved clubs from the strongest football nations the continent could boast: Austria, Hungary, Italy and Czechoslovakia; that year, besides Venus, there were two representatives from Switzerland and one from Yugoslavia. Venus were dispatched in the first round, 10-5 on aggregate over two legs, by Ujpest of Hungary, whose compatriots Ferencvaros went on to win the title.
The following summer, the Romanian presence in the competition doubled – partly due to the fact that Austria had become part of Germany in the meantime and thus Austrian teams could no longer enter – and, as runners-up and cup winners, Rapid accompanied champions Ripensia in the draw. Their first round tie would be against Ujpest. n a splendid bit of scheduling, the first leg took place one week after Rapid’s Romanian Cup final, which was the same day as Hungary’s World Cup final in Paris, in which several Ujpest players had featured. The Hungarians administered a proper hammering in the Budapest leg: an 83rd-minute consolation goal from Rapid’s Raffinsky gave the score some respectability at 4-1. Incredibly, in front of fifteen thousand fans the following week (3 July 1938), in their first competitive European fixture at Giulești, Bogdan’s 90th-minute thunderbastard sealed a famous 4-0 victory and Rapid were through! The Potcoava‘s power again helped the team to a 2-1 victory over Genoa in the next round, but the Italian cup-winners did for them 3-0 in the return.
The Mitropa Cup was scaled down to eight teams in 1939, in the shadow of the coming war, and only league champions Ripensia were invited. But in June 1940, now on their fifth Romanian Cup win, Rapid achieve their most impressive progress in the tournament. Again there are eight participants, but this time only Romanian, Yugoslav and Hungarian teams are involved, everybody else being preoccupied with the war. Hungarian league runners-up Hungaria (previously, and now again, better known as MTK) are Rapid’s first round opponents, and are beaten in Bucharest thanks to two goals from (Hungarian) striker Vilim Šipoš. Šipoš scores again in Budapest a week later in a 3-0 away win. Gradjanski Zagreb provide such resolute opposition in the second round that both legs finish goalless. A tie-breaking play-off in Subotica on 10 July ends 1-1. Eventually a coin is tossed… It goes against the Yugoslavs and Rapid are in the final!
Just as the war put an end to Rapid’s ascent to footballing power in the league and to their incredible domestic cup run, so it called premature time to their continental adventures. The war was encroaching upon both countries: during the tournament Romania had been forced to cede northern and eastern territories to the Soviet Union, and King Carol II was corresponding with Adolf Hitler on the issue of northern Transylvania, which Hungary wanted to annex. Tensions between Hungary and Romania were high, and troops massing on either side of the border. Rapid’s Mitropa Cup final against Ferencvaros, scheduled for later that same month, never took place.