Cluj (Kolozsvár in Hungarian) was always a one-club town. Sure, the railways team CFR puttered along inoffensively in the lower divisions, and the Cluj derby is the oldest still contested in Romania, but the only real game in town has usually been at Universitatea Cluj, or “U” as they are universally known. U Cluj was founded in 1919, when the city, the largest in Transylvania, had only just passed into Romanian control from the hands of the dismembered Austro-Hungarian empire. A new University of Cluj was in the process of being established: the Royal Hungarian Franz Joseph University would be replaced with an institution that could serve the Romanian inhabitants and promote the Romanianisation of Transylvania. A sports society made up largely of medical students formed the new football club, which competed initially in the Cluj district competition. As regular local champions, U qualified for the fledgling national final tournament four times in the 1920s. In 1932-33, the first season in which the finals took the form of a league, U topped one ‘series’, and played the final against Ripensia Timișoara, who had won the other. The Timisoreans triumphed 5-3 on aggregate.
The following year, the club was present in the final of the inaugural Romanian Cup. Again Ripensia defeated them, 3-2 this time, but U protested against the decision to hold the game in Timișoara. Three weeks later the match was replayed in neutral Bucharest in front of ten thousand spectators; Ripensia, whose forward line was led by the legendary Ștefan Dobay (“the Horse”), tore U to shreds and finished up 5-0 winners. U remained in the top league, Divizia A, until 1938, but misfortune was just around the corner.
During these years, U Cluj squads had been overwhelmingly drawn from the Romanian population. Only a few names catch the eye as being of Slavic origin – Jifcovici, Iancovici, Ioanovici, Covaci and Ivanovici all featured in their successful teams from the 1920s to the 1950s – and Hungarian names are conspicuously absent. An 83% majority in the city of Cluj in 1910, while Romanians formed the majority of country-dwellers, Hungarians continued to dominate urban life throughout the inter-war years.
In 1940, thanks to war and to the Second Dictate of Vienna, which annexed part of Transylvania back to Hitler’s ally Hungary, Cluj became once again Kolozsvár. In 1919 many Hungarian academics who had been employed at the prestigious Franz Joseph University refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Romania’s King Ferdinand I and were thus not permitted to take up posts in the new Cluj University. They exiled themselves to Szeged, which was still within Hungary’s borders. In 1940, however, the Franz Joseph University was moved back from Szeged, while the University of Cluj, whose Romanian staff did not want to live under fascist Hungarian rule, was relocated to Sibiu in Romanian-held southern Transylvania. The football team had a quick name-change, and as Universitatea Cluj-Sibiu, reached another cup final. This time they were pulverised 7-1 by Rapid Bucharest.
After the Second World War, Romanian rule was reinstated in northern Transylvania and the university returned from Sibiu. When the league championship started up again, in 1946, U Cluj reappeared in the top division. Briefly renamed as CSU Cluj, in 1949 they again reached the cup final. And again they lost; this time it was a first ever trophy for the newly-formed army club CSCA, which would soon become known as Steaua. Both Cluj clubs were relegated to Divizia B at the end of this season.
After many more years, at last the club’s own first trophy would arrive, and their cup final hoodoo laid to rest, in 1965 against Dinamo Pitești, this time under the name Știința Cluj. Știința (“Science”) made their debut in European competition that autumn; in the second round of the Cup-Winners’ Cup they were demolished 6-0 on aggregate by an Atletico Madrid side (boasting hot-shot Luis Aragones, whose club goalscoring record still stands) that would go on to win the Spanish league title that season.
In 1971-72 the club, by now back to the old name of Universitatea, achieved third place, its best league finish since 1933. This meant another excursion into Europe, but it would be a short one. Their UEFA Cup first round opponents were Levski-Spartak Sofia. After an emphatic 4-1 victory for the Clujeans in the home leg, Levski managed the same scoreline in Sofia, before taking the tie with an extra-time winning goal.
Since then times have been lean for the “red hats” (named after the traditional headgear of Cluj medical students). In 2000-01 they were even relegated to Divizia C for the first time, where they would meet their local rivals CFR. It was during this season that Hungarian car dealer Árpád Pászkány is said to have approached U with a view to investing but was rebuffed by City Hall, which was backing the club. (This was the City Hall of a city politically dominated by extreme Romanian nationalists.) Pászkány bought CFR instead, invested significantly and the club began to rise out of the shadow of its more storied neighbour.
CFR is in fact an older club than U, founded by railway workers in 1907 while the city was part of Hungary. The club’s original name was Kolozsvári Vasutas Sport Club (KVSC), meaning Cluj Railways Sport Club. It would spend most of its twentieth-century existence in the second and third tiers, with only nine seasons in the top division as against U’s fifty. With new money and new direction, however, CFR now managed two promotions in three seasons, reaching the top division after a 28-year absence, and finished fifth in 2005-06. Three league titles and three Romanian cups followed between 2007 and 2012, plus three appearances in the Champions’ League group stages. Foreign players were increasingly important on the pitch, while a national/ethnic change was going on among Cluj’s football-watching public.
U’s image as defenders of Romanianness, combined with increased migration into booming Cluj from the countryside and from other parts of Romania, led to a growth in nationalistic feeling around the supporters of a club which in the recent past had had a broader support base and had represented the city itself. By 2002 Hungarians were less than a fifth of the city’s population, and many locals felt that the atmosphere at the Ion Moina stadium was becoming increasingly anti-Hungarian, partly reflecting resentment that the man who had brought all that money down the road was an ethnic Hungarian Clujean himself. When CFR started to become successful in the mid-2000s, many transferred their allegiance to the upstarts; the club found itself attracting a more middle-class clientele and representing the diversity of the city of Cluj. While CFR had traditionally been the team of choice for many Hungarians, those fans downplayed their ethnic identity in order to build unity among the supporters, in the face of a toxic political atmosphere. (An academic based in Cluj, Florin Faje, has explored in depth the ethnic and social divisions in the city in relation to its football teams, and his fascinating work is well worth a read.)
Now CFR’s success has waned, and the sugar daddy stepped down in 2014, but they have held on to their place in Liga 1. Meanwhile their rivals U, in Liga 1 themselves as recently as 2014-15, were relegated from Liga 2 last season and fell into bankruptcy. Fortunately, unlike in the case of Rapid, the city council holds the rights to the club’s name, colours and history, and swiftly awarded them to a new entity formed over the summer. So the supporters have continuity, even if the new club does have to start in Liga 4. So far the season has gone well: after three games U have nine points and a 22-1 goal difference. They are still playing at the 30,000-capacity Cluj Arena: in their first home match of the season several thousand fans attended, comparable with the attendances CFR can boast in the top division. It will take at least three years for the venerable Universitatea Cluj to make it back into the big time, but they seem stable and well-equipped for the task. God knows, we need more proper clubs with proper fanbases being run properly…