After Chinezul’s dominance of the 1920s [read all about it here!], the second great team from the cosmopolitan industrial city of Timișoara, in the Banat region, was established on 21 October 1928. Ripensia was named after the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis, which referred to the bank (ripa) of the Danube, and equated very roughly to the Banat. The founding president was Cornel Lazăr, who had previously been in charge at Chinezul. He had resigned from there in July, under pressure from fellow directors, with the club on the brink of financial ruin.
At this point the game in Romania had become blighted by shamateurism. Many of the best players sought to earn a living from playing the sport across the border in Hungary, which, along with Austria and Czechoslovakia, legalised professionalism in the mid-1920s. Most of the best footballers in Timișoara – a city close to the border with Hungary, and part of Hungary until 1920 – were ethnic Germans and Hungarians, and especially likely to be tempted to leave. And the city was producing some of the country’s best talent: in a 1929 friendly, held in the capital, a Timișoara representative side thrashed Bucharest 5-0. Lazăr had seen the future and it was an openly professional one, but the Romanian sports federation (FSSR) was not yet prepared to follow the example of its Hungarian counterpart and permit the practice in its football competitions. Indeed, one week after the club’s foundation, Ripensia’s rival clubs in the city sent a telegram to the FSSR in response, requesting that measures be taken to prevent the de facto legalisation of professionalism.*
Countering the local protest, Lazăr was able to demonstrate that Chinezul had been making illegal payments to its players for years – essentially, giving them money to remain amateur. For now, however, Ripensia could not participate in official competition. Instead they played friendlies – glorified training matches – while they accumulated a squad and pressurised the authorities to reconsider. The newly-organised Romanian Football Federation (FRFA) finally permitted professionalism in October 1930, enabling Ripensia to acquire some of the hottest talent in the country. Lazăr himself was soon appointed head of a new national commission for professional football, based in Timișoara. The tide had turned. But the professionals were still not allowed to participate in the Romanian championship, nor were they picked for the national team.
The Ripensia squad was largely made up of local players, although that doesn’t mean it lacked stars – far from it. Successful city rivals Banatul and (multiple national champions) Chinezul each lost several assets, while a couple of players were lured back from Hungary. The very first coach was Franz Platkó, a Hungarian goalkeeper who had just retired as a playing legend at Barcelona. He did not last long, however: after a 6-3 friendly defeat against Beogradski SK in the Yugoslav capital, his laid-back attitude was misread by the club’s management and he was fired in February 1931. That same year the club acquired two more locally-born lads: Rudy Wetzer – 30-year-old veteran of the 1924 Olympics and current Romania captain – arrived from Juventus Bucuresti; he was joined by his club and international team-mate, 25-year-old midfielder Ladislau Raffinsky. In two years both would be gone again, but their experience and star quality – current national champions, with World Cup experience to boot – helped to lay foundations for the success to come.
Give us a game, mister
Among their many friendly matches, in May 1931 Ripensia faced the Romanian national team in Bucharest, and beat them. Kispest of Budapest came to town in June and were overcome 4-3, to great acclaim from the stands. In July a Hungarian professional select XI came to town and narrowly defeated the locals 3-2. Then in August, when the club hosted the mighty Ferencváros – who would be champions of Hungary the following season – 7,000 spectators packed the ground. The team unluckily lost 4-2, hitting the woodwork six times and missing a penalty. The following year, Ripensia visited Transylvania for a pair of friendly matches against Romania Cluj (aka Victoria). One speedy young forward caught Wetzer’s eye: invited by the elder statesman to join what would nowadays be called the Ripi ‘project’, the 20-year-old Silviu Bindea accepted. Thus was completed one of the legendary forward lines of the Romanian game.
Let the games commence
The ban on professionals taking part in official competitions was finally lifted in June 1932. One week later, Ripensia players featured in an official fixture for Romania for the first time. Finally, on 11 September, Ripensia made their competitive debut. The national competition was for the first time organised in a league format (initially in two parallel series, in which local rivals were kept apart). In the re-shuffle, they were given a place in the new league despite never having played a match in the regional competition. A typical line-up around the end of 1932 was as follows: William Zombory – Rudolf Bürger, Francisc Agner – Vasile Deheleanu, Rudolf Kotormány, Eugen Lakatos – Silviu Bindea, Zoltan Beke, Gheorghe Ciolac, Alexandru Schwartz, Ştefan Dobay. That team had an average age of just over 23.
After losing to the railway workers’ team, CFR București (aka Rapid), on the first day of the season, Ripensia recovered to show their worth. One more narrow defeat came in October, but they won all their six games after the winter break, scoring 28 goals and conceding two, to overtake CFR and progress to the final. This was a two-legged affair that took place in July 1933 against the winners of the other series, Universitatea Cluj. The free-scoring timişorenii won 5-3 at home, thanks to a hat-trick from 23-year-old local lad Ștefan “the Horse” Dobay (the left-sided attacker who finished as the league’s top scorer). They then ground out a rare goalless draw in Cluj a week later to secure the club’s first trophy.
During the 1932-33 winter break, Ripensia had toured France, another country where professionalism had just been introduced. On Christmas Day, they faced FC Hyères, whose ranks boasted a very familiar face: Rudy Wetzer now called the French Riviera home. Hyères were participating in the inaugural season of the French national league; they would finish second bottom, disappear a year later and never be heard of again. Dobay scored the only goal of the game. The second match, on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, was against either the amateur FC Toulon or a French Navy XI (sources disagree). Having been held 1-1 at half-time, Ripensia blew their opponents away in the last quarter to win by the unlikely score of 12-1.
This encounter may have been the origin of what would become the famous “Ripensia quarter-hour”. The Romania coach at the 1930 World Cup, Costel Rădulescu, would later speak of what he had learned at that tournament; he noted that the South American teams trained intensively for two hours at a time in order to feel fresh for the whole ninety minutes of a match. According to Rădulescu, Romania captain Wetzer would implement similar methods in his season at Ripensia immediately after returning from Uruguay, ensuring that Ripi players’ fitness was better than their opponents’.
Ripensia players played crucial roles for the Romanian national team throughout the 1930s. In June 1932, in a friendly against France in Bucharest, the first time the professionals were eligible, seven of the thirteen players used were Ripi boys; Wetzer and Schwartz each scored twice in a 6-3 win. Five or six was more normal. At the Balkan Cup in June 1933, forward Gheorghe Ciolac scored four times, playing alongside clubmates Silviu Bindea and Eugen Lakatos, as Romania won all three of their games without conceding a goal.
The team for the 1934 World Cup match, against Czechoslovakia in Trieste, featured five Ripensia players: Zombory, Deheleanu, Kotormany, Bindea and Dobay. Deheleanu was fired from his accountancy job at the town hall for taking the time off to go to the tournament, but was reinstated after pressure from the public and the press. The opening game of the next World Cup, against Cuba, again saw five Ripensia men: Dumitru Pavlovici, Bürger, Bindea, Dobay and Vasile Chiroiu.
Having scored three on his senior debut, aged 15, and once in his first game for Romania, Dobay’s nine-match international scoring run in 1933-34 encompassed both qualifying matches for the World Cup and the team’s only match in the finals, that defeat to eventual runners-up Czechoslovakia. Dobay, renowned for his galloping pace and especially the power of his thunderbolt-like shot, also scored in both his country’s games at the 1938 finals. His record as the only man to have scored for Romania at two World Cups was only broken by Dan Petrescu six decades later. Altogether, Dobay played 160 league games for Ripensia and scored 130 goals. His 41 internationals yielded 19 goals. He was the league’s top scorer four times.
There or thereabouts
The next league season, Ripensia again finished top of their series, again losing just twice. This time in the final they faced Venus București, who had lost four times in the regular season, scoring far fewer and conceding far more than Ripensia had. In July 1934 the teams met for the first leg in Timişoara; the home team were missing regular starters Deheleanu, Kotormany and Beke, but half an hour in they found themselves 2-0 up. However, Venus’ forward line boasted hot-shots in the three Russian-born Vâlcov brothers: Petea (2) and Volodea scored in the second half to give the visitors a lead to take back to Bucharest. In the second leg a week later, Ciolac struck for Ripensia early on, but Kotormany went off injured soon afterwards. Seven goals after the break, including one for Dobay and another for Bindea but two each for Volodea and Colea Vâlcov, saw Venus run out 5-3 winners on the day, and take their fifth national title.
The spring of 1934 saw the introduction of a new competition: the Romanian Cup. It took the form of an FA Cup-style, pure knockout tournament with one leg per round. Ripensia reached the final without too much trouble, scoring 23 goals in four matches. They took on U Cluj – who had mustered a mere 17 goals en route – on 8th September 1934, at the Electrica stadium in Timişoara, and beat them 3-2, with goals from Schwartz, Dobay (of course) and Ciolac. However, the Cluj club complained about the location of the final and demanded a replay at a neutral venue. The Ripensia board, confident in their team and keen on maximising revenue, agreed. Accordingly, three weeks later ten thousand people at the ONEF stadium in Bucharest, including King Mihai himself, bore witness to the timișorenii tearing apart their Transylvanian rivals: the game finished 5-0, thanks to strikes from Dobay (2), Bindea (2), and Schwartz.
For the 1934-35 season, the national championship was reorganised again, from two series into one single league. Despite losing twice to Chinezul, 3-2 away and (incredibly) 6-5 at home, Ripensia pipped CA Oradea and Venus to win a second title. They also reached the Cup final again: this was a match notable for its scoreline – five-all at 90 minutes and 6-5 to CFR after extra-time – and for the penalty scored by William Zombory. He still holds the record as the Romanian top flight’s all-time top-scoring goalkeeper, with five goals to his name.
1935-36 would be the greatest season not just for Ripensia as a club, but arguably for Timişoara as a footballing city. The team was still virtually unchanged since 1932, the only major difference being that Zombory had been supplanted by the younger Pavlovici between the sticks. Ripensia recovered from third place at the halfway stage to win the league by two points from AMEFA Arad. They again progressed through the early rounds of the Cup, scoring 28 goals in six matches, and destroyed Unirea Tricolor București in the final, 5-1, thanks to goals from Dobay, Schwartz (2) and Ciolac (2) …as usual. In their three Cup finals to date they had scored six goals between the 75th and 90th minutes and conceded none. Thanks to “Ripensia Time” the league and cup double – the first ever in Romania – was theirs.
The following season could not live up to that. In fact it was the worst in the club’s history to date. They finished third in the league, behind the Bucharest teams Venus and Rapid (formerly known as CFR). Then they lost the cup final – also to Rapid, and in fine style. The teams went in at half-time level at one apiece after Dobay’s equaliser, but, in a reversal of the usual order of things, it was Rapid who struck four times late on to inflict a humiliating 5-1 defeat on the yellow-and-reds. Rapid would go on an incredible cup run, going seven years unbeaten in the competition.
Tests against the best
Ripensia continued to tour abroad and to receive visits from foreign teams. In June 1936, English first division side Liverpool arrived in the country, the first touring team from those shores to appear in Romania since the amateurs of Oxford City almost a decade earlier. The Reds comfortably beat an underperforming Venus at their stadium in Bucharest and, two days later in the same venue, faced Ripensia. New signing Matt Busby featured for the visitors. Dobay (who else?) opened the scoring, but Liverpool ran out 2-1 winners. In August, the mighty Ferencváros, champions of Hungary the previous year, came to Timișoara and, in front of 18,000 eager fans, were sent packing 3-0. Prestigious victories over First Vienna, Leicester City, Újpest and FC Hungaria (aka MTK) would follow in 1937; then a draw with AS Roma in 1938.
In 1937-38 Ripensia took revenge on Rapid, beating them to the league title, in spite of a 6-1 hiding along the way at the hands of Venus (which was probably fixed by Venus’ president, the capital’s chief of police Gavrilă Marinescu). This earned the club an invitation to compete in the Mitropa Cup, a prestigious tournament featuring the best teams from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Italy – in other words, the strongest European club sides of the time. Although this edition was severely weakened by the absence of Austrian clubs due to the Anschluss, Romanian teams were still a poor relation to these central European powers. The previous year Romanian teams had been invited to compete for the first time, but Venus were dumped out by Újpest of Hungary.
Ripi‘s opening tie was against AC Milan, who had just finished third in Serie A. On 21 June 1938 this team took to the field at the Venus stadium in Bucharest against the rossoneri: Pavlovici – Bürger, Chiroiu – Nagy, Kotormany, Deheleanu – Bindea, Beke, Adalbert Marksteiner, Ciolac, Dobay. Marksteiner (2) and Dobay scored, goalkeeper Pavlovici played out of his skin, and a famous 3-0 triumph was achieved. The Italians could only manage a 3-1 win in the return leg, so Ripensia went through to the next round.
Unfortunately, Pavlovici had an off-day in the home match against Ferencváros in round two, in front of 25,000 spectators, and even four Bindea goals could not save Ripi from defeat, 5-4. Ferencváros, who had won 23 of 26 games in taking that year’s Hungarian title, finished the timișorenii off 4-1 in Budapest. Géza Toldi and György Sárosi each scored four goals in the tie; they, along with several other Fradi players, had been important components of the national team in its run to the World Cup final in France just a couple of weeks earlier. However, the game was not without controversy: not only was Silviu Bindea subjected to severe abuse from the crowd for the duration, but afterwards he was physically assaulted by two opponents, which caused such damage that he spent ten days in a Budapest hospital and was awarded compensation by an embarrassed Hungarian federation.
On the pitch there was no shame in losing to such a strong side, yet this was to be perhaps the high water mark of fotbal timișorean. Thanks to Chinezul and Ripensia, Timișoara could boast ten national championships out of the seventeen that had been played up to 1938. No team from the city has won the league title in the eighty years since. Ripensia would be distant runners-up to Venus in 1938-39, and finish sixth the year after. The team was aging, and other clubs had overtaken them, though Pavlovici, Marksteiner and Bindea continued to play. Cornel Lazăr had stepped down as president in 1938. Not even the acquisition of vastly experienced Chinezul and Ferencváros midfielder Mihai Tänzer – an ethnic German who had played for both Romania and Hungary – or the emergence of young homegrown talent Nicolae Simatoc – who would go on to win the Hungarian league with CA Oradea and the Spanish with Barcelona – could halt the decline at the end of the decade.
On the resumption of football after the war, quadruple-champions Ripensia were for some reason placed in the third tier, Divizia C, for the 1946-47 season. Pre-war players Gall, Lazăr and Oprean were still/back in the team, while former stars Bindea and Deheleanu were coaching the juniors to the national championship. The Ripensia first team won promotion to Divizia B but in 1948, after just twenty years of existence, the club was excluded from the competition and disbanded. Pavlovici, Bürger, Deheleanu, Bindea, Beke, Ciolac, Schwartz, Kotormány and Balázs Hoksáry – almost an entire golden team – would all coach various teams in Timișoara after the war. Dobay coached elsewhere, while Zombory became a referee
In 1969, second-tier club Politehnica Timișoara was gifted the best players from local rivals CFR Timișoara and renamed Ripensia, as part of a brief attempt to restore the city’s diminished footballing status, but Poli reverted to its proper name after just half a season. The name was, however, finally revived in 2012, with the formation of a new club, and the team currently (2018-19) plays in the second tier – coincidentally, they will face two versions of Politehnica. But that’s another story…
*The professionalism issue was a live one throughout Europe in the late 1920s. After a confrontation between the International Olympic Committee and FIFA before the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, travel costs were allowed to be awarded to footballers taking part: football was by far the biggest draw in the competition and the organisers did not want to lose the spectacle. The decision to allow such compensatory payments was controversial and led to a British boycott of the event. Mainstream football in Britain had been professional since the 1880s, and the Olympian gentlemen wanted to keep their version of the sport clean and amateur.