Deep in the rural wilderness of southern Romania lies Scorniceşti (pronounced Scornitshesht) and its meagre population of less than 12,000 inhabitants. Formerly a place of little descript, Scorniceşti gained infamy as the birthplace of communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his malign patronage brought seismic changes to the very fabric of the town. A push towards sporting excellence was high on the list of the the President of the Republic’s ambitions and brought about the establishment in 1972 of a new football club which came to be known as FC Olt Scorniceşti. The nefarious world of Romanian football in the 70s and 80s might render what the club did achieve as somewhat moot, but its life in the latter years of Romanian communism makes for a tale as fascinating and unusual as it was turbulent.
During their heyday FC Olt enjoyed a meteoric rise towards the top of the Romanian game and at different times could boast players like Ilie Bărbulescu, Adrian Bumbescu, Ilie Dumitrescu, George Mihali, Dorinel Munteanu, Dan Petrescu, Victor Piţurcă and Ilie Balaci wearing its colours.
Founded in 1972 under the name Viitorul Scorniceşti (translating as Future Scorniceşti), the club would undertake several name changes – as was the norm across communist Eastern Europe – before settling on FC Olt Scorniceşti in 1980. Promotions came rapidly and by 1978 the club had reached Divizia B, the second-tier in the Romanian pyramid. The step up to the top flight followed a season later in highly questionable circumstances.
Needing to win its last game of the season by a huge margin to secure promotion, FC Olt duly delivered an 18-0 victory over Electrodul Slatina. The margin of victory was outlandish enough, but rumours persist that upon miscalculating the number of goals needed, controversial FC Olt president Dumitru Dragomir made both sets of players leave their post-match showers, re-take the field and play on until the requisite number of goals were scored.
Scorniceşti thus became the only club among Romania’s big guns representing a small town rather than one of the country’s major cities, but the main source of wider contention was more the growing resentment felt towards the rural outsiders because of their influential patron.
Olt goalkeeper Ion Anghel remembers: “During a fixture at Rapid Bucharest the stadium was crowded. The people of Bucharest were curious to see us. They beat us 2-0 in the end and the crowd cursed Ceauşescu and sang, ‘The peasants are on the meadow.’”
Defender Aurel Mincu recalls a match against Metalul Bucharest: “We were playing at home and the score was 0-0 until the 80th minute when the visitors scored a perfectly legitimate goal. We put the ball on the centre spot, but our president Dumitru Dragomir who watched the match from a stool on the edge of the pitch called me over and told me, ‘Go see the referee and tell him there was offside before the kick-off!’ The referee was waiting for me to approach him, then he goes to see his linesman who tells him that there was an offside, so the goal is canceled! In protest the Metalul players turned their backs on the ball. Our teammate Soarece is left alone with the ball: goal. They put the ball back in the middle of the field, kick-off, turn their backs again and we score another. When he saw what was happening the referee immediately whistled for the end of the match and the 2-0 scoreline. stood despite only 82 minutes having elapsed.”
Back in the 1970s rural Scorniceşti’s population accounted for a mere 6,000 people. As part of an experimental national policy Ceauşescu wanted to convert it to into a ‘model town’, so during the early 1980s it became one of the first places in Romania to be completely razed and rebuilt into an agro-industrial centre. Traditional houses were demolished and the population displaced or crammed into the medium-rise apartment blocks built to represent the new national order. Much of rural Romania suffered a similar outrage imagined by the Conducator to bring the country into its ‘golden age of agriculture and industry’.
Ion Anghel arrived before this transformation. “When I first came to Scorniceşti upon transferring from Sportul Studentesc, I sat for two hours at the intersection before the entrance to the town. Not one car passed. There were only just two cars in the whole place. And the mud, all that mud.”
The stadium was located by the entrance to the town next to the former slaughterhouse, in the area where the players lodged and the town’s bar was situated. Mincu remembers: “It was the Mecca of the village and even if you did not drink, where else could you go? So we sat around the table a lot, talking. Let’s be clear, nobody was playing here for the love of the shirt. We were all mercenaries. Whoever came here did it for the money.”
For its first season in Divizia A FC Olt acquired a young and then unknown player who would go on to become a Romanian legend: Victor Piţurcă. Mincu spoke about his arrival: “We just found him in the dressing room 20 minutes before the opening fixture against FC Argeş. The management presented the newcomer to his new teammates saying: ‘His name is Piţurcă and he comes from Panduri Târgu-Jiu.’ He was excellent, scored a goal and we won 1-0. He was a fine young man and a pacy player. He said that you should never leave anything to chance, that you must always have control over the game and the opponent. He applied this maxim everywhere.”
The future national coach stayed for four seasons in Scorniceşti before moving to Steaua Bucharest where he won everything there was to win, including the European Cup in 1986. Others like Ilie Bărbulescu, Ilie Dumitrescu and Adrian Bumbescu would follow a similar path. Brilliant full back Dan Petrescu would later play on loan at FC Olt for a season before later finding fame and fortune in Serie A and the Premier League.
Just as happened the year before, the 1979-80 season ended with another match-fixing incident although curiously FC Olt were not the beneficiaries this time. Aurel Mincu again takes up the story: “On the last day we played ASA Târgu Mureş who were in direct competition with CS Târgovişte to avoid relegation. Two army colonels came to see us before the game and offered money if we let the local team win. They told us they would beat us even if we did not take the money, so better for us to accept anyway. Târgovişte offered us money too but we chose to accept the colonels’ proposal as the likelihood of it being paid was considered more safe.
Târgu Mureş beat us 7-0 and were saved from relegation on goal difference as Târgovişte ‘only’ won their fixture against Timişoara by a 5-1 margin. Near the end of the match we asked them to let us score a goal. One of their players deliberately gave away possession of the ball to our forward Iamandi who converted the easy chance, but the lineman raised his flag for offside. Ispir, the Târgu Mureş defender, screamed at him, ‘But how was it offside, are you sick? Did not you see that I made the pass?’. Still the goal did not stand.”
In the post-reconstruction Romania devised by Ceauşescu, Scorniceşti now ressembled any other planned town – with one very marked difference: its stadium. By now well-established in the top half of the table since ascension to Divizia A, in 1985 the club decided to build a monumental arena to play in. The Viitorul Stadium would have the unusual distinction of being able to accommodate 25,000 people in a village with only 6,000 inhabitants. When inaugurated in 1988 it was the first stadium in Romania to be equipped with plastic seating and a semi-covered main stand. The pitch even had its own state-of-the-art drainage system.
Ion Preda, the director of the stadium at its inauguration, amusedly recalls that the pitch was planned to be 120 metres long and 90 metres wide. “It was huge! In the opening match we beat Universitea Craiova by a 6-2 margin and their coach Cîrţu was furious about the dimensions.”
Former keeper Ion Anghel continues: “An official from the federation turned up a few days later. He told us we were crazy and that we could not use such a big pitch. So we altered it to 100 meters by 70, though when some teams came we just added another ten metres to the width. Who could see it?”
“It was magnificent,” exclaims Ion Miu, a former member of the club speaking about the stadium. “Everything was nicely painted and there was no compromise with facilities.” It’s hard to imagine such a reputedly groundbreaking arena when you see its current state. The access road requires many diversions to avoid potholes and the parking area is a mudbath. No-one has been maintaining the stadium for years: the paint has disappeared from the walls, the entrance is dark as the lights no longer work; pieces of the walls and ceilings lie strewn over the floors; the rooms upstairs, originally reserved for players, are now occupied by the homeless, and the entrance to the pitch is through a room that was originally… the bar!”
“I saw a once super stadium become this ugly building,” laments Teodoresav, one of the team’s current players. “Things started to go wrong when the team dropped down to the fourth division after losing its Ceaucescu patronage. At this regional level the club no longer interested sponsors who jumped ship one after the other. Without any real income, FC Olt was no longer able to maintain its white elephant of a stadium. Our club had infrastructure that even the Bucharest clubs did not have at the time,” continues Teodoresav. “There’s a pool and sauna inside for recovery, but nothing works. In the stands, only the covered one has retained its seats. The others are bare, have no seats or only wooden benches remain.”
“It’s sad to play here in this big stadium with no crowd,” said Marius Stan, a former FC Olt player who went on to become the first team coach. The team plays games today typically in front of just 70 spectators, a black dot amidst the grey immensity of this empty stage. “It was a different story at the time. I arrived in 1988 when the team was at the top. But everything changed in 1989. After the revolution, the club was demoted to the third division because of its connections to the disgraced regime. Almost all the players moved on too. We rose again to Divizia B before going back down. It’s truly sad.”
Ion Miu demonstrates a rather narrow grasp of perspective on the past: “It was a good time under communism. Everything was better then.” Partly in his defence, life was undeniably easier under communism for the inhabitants of the town. “Before 1990, it was like the west in Scorniceşti,” Ion Anghel insists. “There was free meat, milk, eggs, chocolate, Pepsi – a forbidden American drink in Romania! – all we wanted! People came from Bucharest to stock up here.”
Marian Bondrea, the coach of the club in 1989, is more circumspect about the past: “Yes it’s true, we can say that we were privileged. We could buy anything at a time when everything was rationed. But it was like that for all clubs. Football was a priority at the time and since there was only football in Scorniceşti, the entire village could benefit from this special treatment. This means that, in spite of an undeniable status as Nicolae Ceauşescu’s hometown team, people shouldn’t see it as the dictator’s club.”
In fact, the former President of the Socialist Republic didn’t play a significant role in the day-to-day life of the club. The key man behind the club’s creation was actually Ceauşescu’s brother-in-law, Vasile Bărbulescu, and the construction of the Viitorul stadium was initiated by him. According to Ion Preda: “Nicolae Ceauşescu was never aware that we were building such a big stadium. He came a year before the inauguration with Zhivkov, the Bulgarian President. We had everything covered so that the work was not visible by helicopter. When everything was complete a year later, he did not say anything.”
On the rare occasions that Ceauşescu tangibly involved himself with the fortunes of the club, no real benefit was derived. It was said that after the successive promotions of 1977 and 1978, Nicolae did not want a third promotion in three years for superstitious reasons as the other two had coincided with the death of a family member.
The highest position FC Olt would ever attain in Divizia A was fourth place because in in essence that was the ceiling imposed upon them. Marian Bondrea says: “I was still unknown in 1989 and it was my first experience in the elite. I would only stay one season at FC Olt, but it was an amazing experience. Honestly, we did not feel Nicolae Ceauşescu’s influence. The leaders asked us to do everything to beat Dinamo, which we did that year (1-0). Other than that we had no pressure, no clearly defined goal. We just had to achieve the highest place we could without qualifying for Europe. It’s hard to believe, but we did not want FC Olt to participate in European club competition. For example, we were fifth in 1989 before the last day. We could win against Victoria Bucharest (another club that benefited from state-sponsorship) and qualify for the UEFA Cup, but we understood that it was not a priority. Despite the motivation of the influential Bărbulescu, the club would never go against presidential will.”
Ceauşescu was not in fact a big fan of football at all and he followed it only from a reluctant and somewhat disdainful distance. Only the prestige of the country and the new Romanian ‘Communist Man’ really mattered to him, but football had its role to play – hence an interest in the results of the national team and Steaua, a club led by his son Valentin.
An anecdote illustrates this: “I will never forget this 1982 match against Jiul Petroşani,” said Mincu. “It was played in June in suffocating heat at the end of the championship. It was harvest time and with most of the men busy in the fields, only a hundred people attended the match, all grouped in the shade in one of the stands behind the goal. When we returned to the field after half-time, they were all in the sun in the gallery opposite. We wondered what was happening. It turned out that Ceauşescu wanted to watch the match from Bucharest. The television crews had arrived at the break, mounted their cameras and noticed the empty stand in the background. To avoid such a negative image being broadcasted, our leaders rapidly moved the spectators so that Nicolae would get the impression that there were many people at the game.”
Today the club is mired in the regional fourth tier of Romanian football and its team of youngsters struggle on to general local indifference. Far from the elite, far from Europe and with little reason for optimism for the future, FC Olt Scorniceşti remains a club whose storied, if challenging and compromised past, will never break free of its association with one of post-war Europe’s worst dictators and most despotic regimes.
This is a guest article by Pierre-Julien Pera, aficionado of French and eastern european football and regular attender at his kids games. Pierre-Julien is the editor of the late http://parlonsfoot.com and the very much living http://Footballski.fr and like all of us at BTLM, he’s nostalgic for 1980’s European club competition.