European Tour of Sports – Romania

The Basics

Population: 20.1 M
Area: 238 391 km2
Capital: Bucharest
Summer Olympic Medals: 301 (88 G-94 S-119 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 1 (0 G-0 S-1 B)

Popular sports and History

Romania places in a very honourable 15th position on the all-time Olympic Games’ medal count, and there is an edition that contributed with more than one in six medals conquered for the country. In 1984, at Los Angeles, Romania only trailed the hosts, collecting 20 golds and a total of 53 laurels, a haul never approached before or after. Those Olympic Games were indelibly marked by the boycott of the rest of the so-called Eastern Bloc, headlined by the Soviet Union, but Romania’s feats can’t be belittled as they reigned supreme over powerhouses like China, Japan or West Germany. And that performance came in the middle of a stretch where the country amassed, at least, 24 medals on four consecutive editions, starting in Montreal 76 and ending in Seoul 1988. Those were the heydays of Romania’s artistic gymnastics, but we’ll get to that later.

Our first stop is on a sport that hasn’t contributed to the more than 300 medals conquered on the Olympic stage, but it is, nonetheless, the most beloved by Romanians. The nation’s football history has no record of a major international triumph by the “Tricolorii”, the Romanian National team, but they’ve participated in seven World Cups, with the pinnacle being a quarter-final in 1994, a tournament highlighted by the elimination of Argentina. On the continental stage, Romania will take part for the fifth time on the European Championships in 2016, hoping to best the quarter-finals achieved in 2000.

Connecting the squads of 1994 and 2000 was one man above all others, The “Regele” (“The King”) of Romanian football, Mr. Gheorghe Hagi. The exquisite playmaker graced the fields of Europe for two decades and is not only one of the few players to have represented both Real Madrid (1990-92) and FC Barcelona (1992-94), but also a legend in Turkey, where he’ll forever be remembered as “The Commander” by Galatasaray fans. Hagi’s technique and vision were responsible for another nickname, “The Maradona of the Carpathians”, and the recognition as the greatest Romanian player of all-time, a country he represented in 137 occasions (35 goals).

Gheorghe Hagi with the Romanian jersey on the 1994 World Cup

Names like those of Gheorghe Popescu, who also played for Barcelona and Galatasaray, and Miodrag Belodedici, the first player to win the European Cup for two different clubs (Steaua Bucharest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991), are also inked in the nation’s books, while Mircea Lucescu served Romania as a player (70 appearances) and coach (1981-86), but is most recognized for an illustrious career as a manager in Italy, Ukraine and Turkey, where he led Hagi and Galatasaray to an unprecedented triumph on the 2000 UEFA Cup.

At the club level, FC Steaua București is, undoubtedly, the most important institution, becoming the first Eastern Europe club to win the European Cup, in 1986, and losing the final three years later. Steaua also has a record number of National Championships (26) and National Cups (22), with fierce rivals Dinamo București coming next. Dinamo was the first Romanian team to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, in 1984, defeating the holders Hamburg SV. FC Rapid București, FC Universitatea Craiova and CFR Cluj have also amassed a significant number of national honours.

Handball is the second team sport in Romania, with the men’s national team securing the World Championships on four occasions (1961, 64, 70, 74), tied for the most with Sweden, and adding four medals in Olympic tournaments (silver in 1976, bronze in 1972, 1980, 1984). However, Romania has been away from the top over the last two decades, missing all but two (2009 and 2011) World tournaments since 1997, and failing to qualify for the European Championships and Olympic Games since the early 90’s. Both Steaua București (1968 and 1977) and Dinamo București (1965) have won the sport’s Champions League, while CS UCM Reşiţa, HC Odorheiu Secuiesc and HC Minaur Baia Mare have secured other European competitions.

The Women’s National team won the World Championship in 1962, came second in 1973 and 2005, and has never missed the tournament, something no other nation can claim. CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea triumphed on every European Cup, except for the Champions League (finalists in 2010), and also holds the record for most national titles on the women’s side.

Romania is a top European nation in Rugby, having competed in every World Cup. The Stejarii (”The Oaks”) picked up the European Nations Cup (also called the Six Nations B, a tournament instituted in 2000) in four instances, trailing only Georgia, their challenger for the right to be considered the seventh best team on the continent. In their history, Romania has managed to beat France, Italy, Scotland and Wales, four of the Six Nations.

The Romanian rugby national team celebrated after a win over Canada on the 2015 World Cup

Other team sports that boast some relevancy on Romania’s sports landscape are basketball, volleyball and water polo. The Romanian men’s Basketball team finished 5th on the 1957 and 1967 Eurobasket, but hasn’t qualified for the competition since 1987, while their women’s counterparts took part in the 2015 Eurobasket, by virtue of co-organizing the competition with Hungary, and were defeated in all four matches. Gheorghe Mureșan isn’t the best Romanian Basketball player of all-time, since that honour goes to Andrei Folbert, captain of the national team for 25 years, but he’s definitely the most recognizable face, becoming the first to compete in the NBA and, in the process, sharing the distinction as the tallest man ever in the League, standing at 2.31 m.

Romania men’s volleyball team captured a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic Games and reached the podium in the World Cup on four occasions, from 1956 to 1966, while the water polo representation is a regular in the most important international competitions, even if they have never been able to guarantee a top three position.

Nadia Comaneci, an Olympic legend at age 14

For Romania, no sport has been engraved more on the world scale than artistic gymnastics, with a strong tradition rooted on the successes of their ladies. The sport has managed to fetch a staggering total of 72 Olympic medals, including 25 golds, and contributed with the best female athlete in Romania’s history. A 14-year-old girl by the name of Nadia Comaneci took by storm the 1976 Olympics and became the first ever gymnast to score a perfect ten during her routine on the uneven bars, one of the most memorable moments in Olympic Games’ history. She conquered three individual gold medals (uneven bars, balance beam and all-around competition) in Montreal, and added two more in Moscow 1980, leaving his Olympic tally in 5 titles, three silver medals, including two on the team competition, and a bronze.

Comaneci’s achievements transcended her sport and brought a great deal of attention to Gymnastics, something her country beneficiated from on the following Olympics, with Ecaterina Szabo collecting gold medals in three (vault, balance beam, floor) of the four individual events in Los Angeles 84. She also added the team triumph, missing the all-around crown for just 0.5 points to home favourite Mary Lou Retton. In 1988, it was Daniela Silivaș’ time to shine, medalling in all six events of the Seoul Olympics, including the titles in the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam. Romania’s prowess has continued into the 21st century, carried on by Olympic Champions like Sandra Izbașa and Cătălina Ponor, who combined for nine medals, five of them golds. On the men’s side, Marius Urzică and his unique style on the pommel horse were catalysts to a career highlighted by three Olympic medals in the event on consecutive Games (1996-2004), and three World Championships titles.

Another individual sport rooted in Romania’s lore is tennis, mainly by the achievements of the third member of Romanian sports’ gold triangle (alongside Hagi and Comaneci). Ilie Năstase is the only Romanian to ever become World N.1* (between August 1973 and June 1974) but he didn’t stop there. He won Roland Garros in 1972 without dropping a set on the entire tournament, the US Open in 1973, and four ATP Tour Finals, the most important titles of the more than 100 he amassed between singles and doubles. Năstase also led Romania to three Davis Cup finals (1969, 1971, 1972), losing out on the trophy at the hands of the USA on every occasion. Nonetheless, the long campaigns forged a partnership with teammate Ion Țiriac, who rose as far as 8th on the singles rankings before building a reputation as a billionaire businessman, tennis coach, manager and tournament promotor.

Ilie Năstase, Romania’s best tennis player of all-time

On the female circuit, Virginia Ruzici is (by now) the most accomplished player hailing from Romania, having won the French Open in 1978 on both singles and doubles. On the Fed Cup, Romania went as far as the semi-finals in 1973, but the country has been away from the top division since 1992, a run of futility that will end in 2016 due to a renaissance of the women’s game expressed on the presence of five players among the top 100 in the World. Meanwhile, no Romanian man is currently on the top 100 of the ATP Tour Singles Ranking.

*Horia Tecău, alongside Dutch Jean-Julien Rojer, climbed to the lead of the ATP Doubles Rankings today (23/11/2015) after winning the Masters

The second sport in Romania’s history in terms of Olympic silverware is rowing, with 37 medals conquered. Elisabeta Lipă collected a total of eight over a run of six consecutive Olympic Games, from 1984 to 2004, a feat no other rower has ever achieved. She ascended to the podium propelling four different boats, the singles, doubles and quadruple sculls plus the eight-oared boat. Likewise, the 20 years that mediated the first and last of her five Olympic titles are a record in the sport. Also on the history books, Georgeta Damian won six medals (5 titles) from 2000 to 2008, on the coxless pair and eights, first pairing with Doina Ignat (4G+1S+1B) and later with Viorica Susanu (4G+1 B). In London 2012, for the first time in 36 years, Romania came home without a medal from their rowers.

Also impelling the water, Ivan Patzaichin hauled seven Olympic medals (four titles) on Canoeing from 1968 to 1984, later becoming the long-time head of the Romanian national team on a sport that has contributed with 34 medals for the country’s tally.

Alina Dumitru, Judo Olympic Champion in Beijing 2008

Fencing is another sport that enjoys great tradition, with six Romanians among the sport’s Hall of Fame, and 15 medals, spanning every weapon, accumulated since the 50’s. The track and field events (Athletics) place third on the nation’s list of Olympic offerings, with 35 honours, and the women have also been responsible for most of the biggest moments, at least recently: Constantina Diță was the marathon Olympic Champion in 2008; Gabriela Szabo won the 5000 meters of the 2000 Sidney Olympics; Lidia Simon was a silver medallist on the marathon in the same edition, and Ionela Târlea a runner up on the 400 meters hurdles in Athens 2004.

Judo has come into the spotlight over the last few years, with half of the sport’s six medals conquered in 2008 and 2012. Alina Dumitru was a surprising Olympic Champion in Beijing on the -48kg category, and won silver four years later, while Corina Căprioriu lost the decisive encounter in London on the -57kg. Boxing, Wrestling, weightlifting and shooting have also brought joy to the Romanian people on multiple occasions.

Romania’s history on the Winter Olympics is much less impressive, including a single moment of glory, back in the 1968 edition, when the two-man bobsleigh crew of Ion Panturu and Nicolae Neagoe stepped up on the lower podium position.

To wrap it up, a reference to Romania’s own traditional sport, Oină, a team game sharing similarities with baseball that is also played on neighbouring Moldova, and wherever there is a Romanian ethnic or cultural presence.

Star Athletes

Simona Halep (Tennis)

The picturesque city of Constanța, on the edge of the Black Sea, welcomed Halep to the world in September of 1991 and, from early on, the diminutive Simona displayed tremendous talent and passion for the game. The pursuit of the dream to become a professional led to a move to Bucharest at age 16 and a triumph on the 2008 Roland Garros Junior event would soon follow, enlisting the Romanian on the list of biggest promises in the sport. She would dip her toe on the WTA during 2009, but her results didn’t really took off until she made the extremely brave decision to have breast reduction surgery in order to improve her career prospects, citing recurring back pain and trouble with the additional weight.

Simona Halep clutches the Indian Wells trophy, the most important she’s conquered on her career

From 2010 to 2012, Halep slowly improved her game and adapted to the top-level, despite failing to go past the second round on any Grand Slam or conquer a WTA trophy. In 2013, she finally put it all together and broke into the scene with a bang, winning her maiden tournament in June, at Nuremberg, and adding five more until the end of the season, to finish with six on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard courts). She climbed from just inside to top 50 all the way to 11th, was named WTA Most Improved Player of the Year, and set her sight on breaking into the top 10. A quarterfinal performance at the 2014 Australian Open did the trick and Halep didn’t look back. Her first Grand Slam final followed soon, ultimately losing to Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, but she also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, triumphed on the important Qatar Open, and celebrated, at home, on the Bucharest Open. By August, Halep had already became the 2nd player in the world and she ended 2014 with an impressive debut at the WTA Finals, defeating Serena Williams during the group stage before succumbing to the same opponent on the final.

In 2015, Halep solidified her grip on the top positions of the WTA Rankings, ending the season as the Number 2, but couldn’t take a step forward in the Grand Slams, with a semi-final at the US Open as the best outcome. However, her triumph at Indian Wells, a Premier Tournament, represented the most relevant trophy of her career and, at age 24, she has a lot ahead, with her aggressive game from the baseline combined with great athleticism and balance well suited for more successes down the road.

Marian Drăgulescu (Artistic Gymnastics)

So, up there I wrote almost 300 words on artistic gymnastics and Romania’s history on the ladies side, and now I’ll feature a male gymnast? It’s certainly strange but the pool of candidates it’s so much deeper on the women’s side that I had to scramble a bit.

Marian Drăgulescu is still picking up medals for his country at age 34

Anyway, Marian Drăgulescu is a more than qualified athlete to be here. After all, the 34-year-old has won a staggering amount of 26 medals between Olympics, World and European Championships. The Bucharest-native toggled with other sports as a youngster but ended up choosing gymnastics, and the decision paid off on the first international championship he competed in, the 1998 Junior European Championships, which he left with four medals. Two years later, on the 2000 Olympics, Drăgulescu was a 20-year-old newcomer that performed modestly among the big boys but, by the 2001 World Championships, the Romanian was already amongst the best, taking gold on the vault and floor exercise, the first two of his eight career world titles. Three more medals settled his spot on the top in 2002, netting the recognition as Gymnast of the year, and he reached the 2004 Olympics fresh of four triumphs on the European Championships (team competition, vault, floor exercise and all-around).

In Athens, he became a household name on his country by gathering a trio of medals. First, the 23-year-old helped secure a bronze on the team event, then came out second on the floor exercise, losing the title on a tiebreaker, and later added another bronze medal on the vault. On this event, Drăgulescu failed to secure the title after making an error on his second attempt, and the disappointment trickled into an extemporaneous retirement announcement in 2005, from which he returned before long to take the vault title on the World Championships. Two years later, a heavy fall during the European Championships derailed his preparation to the Beijing Olympics, and history ended up repeating itself, with the vault Olympic title escaping again after a near perfect first routine.

He left Beijing empty handed, retired and unretired again in 2009, and went through some tough seasons, pulling out of the 2012 Olympics due to injury. By 2015, approaching age-35, way past the peak for most gymnasts, Drăgulescu is still hanging on with the best, as proved by the gold medal conquered on the vault at the 2015 World Championships. Time will tell if he can finally write his name in gold on Olympic history next year, but the “Drăgulescu”, a move described as “a handspring double front with half turn” will stand the test of time on the future of the vault apparatus.

Cristina Neagu (Handball)

The 27-year-old born in Bucharest has carved a place amongst the top-echelon of female handball players in the World after shining on several occasions for her country at the international stage. Neagu debuted on the professional ranks for Rulmentul Braşov in 2006, and helped the team to an EHF Cup Winner’s Cup trophy in 2008 and three runner-up positions on the national league, behind a CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea club that was starting a string of seven consecutive titles. The left back switched sides in 2009, just as she was becoming the best player on the country, and the new challenge proved decisive for a 2010 season that would leave an indelible mark on her career.

She led Oltchim to the Champions League final, lost to Denmark’s Viborg, and then dazzled at the European Championships, where she won the top scorer award, was elected to the tournament’s All-Star Team, and helped Romania to a first podium position in history. Her performance was so impressive that she was named as the IHF World Player of the Year.

Cristina Neagu, Romania’s handball national team lethal left back

However, in 2010-11, Neagu started an injury ordeal that would last almost three years, first due to damage on her right shoulder cartilage that kept her out for two seasons and, in early 2013, after a rupture on the cruciate ligaments of her left knee. Before 2013-14, the Romania star left her country to join Montenegro’s ŽRK Budućnost Podgorica, and found her stride again, repeating the All Star Team distinction in the 2014 European Championships just a few months before coming in 2nd on the election for World Player of the Year. Her team lost the Champions League Final in 2014, but Neagu’s ability as a scorer carried them back to the decision in 2015, with the Romanian winning the biggest title of her career until today.

Other Athletes: Cătălin Fercu and Florin Vlaicu (Rugby), Cătălina Ponor and Sandra Izbașa (Artistic Gymnastics), Ana Maria Brânză and Simona Gherman (Épée, Fencing), Tiberiu Dolceanu (Sabre, Fencing), Alin Moldoveanu (shooting), Corina Căprioriu and Andreea Chițu (Judo), Elizabeta Samara (Table Tennis), Horia Tecău (Tennis), Alexandru Dumitrescu (Canoeing), Vlad Chiricheș (Football)

Venues

Romania doesn’t boast the same deep pockets that their western neighbours have demonstrated when it comes to building shinny new top sporting facilities, but they’ve steadily worked to modernize and substitute the most important venues in the country.

The symbol of that is the state-of-the-art Arena Națională (National Arena), which opened in 2011 and substituted the former Stadionul Național, the home of the national football team between 1953 and 2008. The 55.600-seats venue, located on the Romanian capital, has hosted, in addition to national team matches’, the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final – the first ever European football final held in the country – and several continental appointments of the country’s main clubs, especially Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest. In 2020, the stadium will receive four matches of the 2020 UEFA European Championships.

The Arena Națională on the night of the inaugural match, between Romania and France.

Beyond the National Arena, there are three more stadiums that can accommodate more than 30.000 people: the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium (32.972), in Timișoara, opened in 1964; the 1983’s Stadionul Iftimie Ilisei (32.700), in Medgidia; and the majestic Cluj Arena (30.201), a modern venue erected in 2011 to be used by Fotbal Club Universitatea Cluj. This arena is also equipped with a running track, opening the possibility of welcoming important athletics’ meetings. CFR Cluj, the city’s most famous club, plays on the Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, a facility with capacity for 23.500 that dates back to 1973.

Steaua Bucharest’s long-time home, the Stadionul Steaua, is owned by the Ministry of National Defence, and disagreements with the government meant the club had to move out from the place they occupied since 1974. Until a solution is found, they’ve transferred to the Arena Națională. Opened in 2011, the Stadionul Ilie Oană, in Ploiești, seats just 15.500, but it’s one of the only three Romanian venues (alongside the Arena Națională and Cluj Arena) ranked by UEFA as a category 4 stadium, thus able to host Champions League and Europa League matches.

On a different perspective, the Stadionul Naţional de Rugby “Arcul de Triumf” deserves a reference, as the 5.500-seats facility is considered the historical ground of the Romanian national rugby team.

In terms of indoor arenas, the Sala Polivalentă (Polyvalent Hall) din București, with a capacity for up to 5.300, is the main hall for sports events in the capital. Renovated in 2008 and 2011, the building has hosted several high-end events in a number of sports, such as the final of the 2000 Women’s Handball European Championships, the 2014 European Judo Championships, or the 2009 European Weightlifting Championships. However, there’s a bigger indoor venue in Bucharest, the Romexpo, an iconic building for combat sports in Romania, since almost 14.000 can watch the battles on scene. With the concert configuration, though, 40.000 can flock inside a hall that dates back to 1962.

Cluj-Napoca’s Sala Polivalentă during an handball match

Cluj-Napoca’s own Sala Polivalentă opened up in October 2014, alongside the new Cluj Arena, and can host 10.000 fans for boxing or concerts and, approximately, 7300 for basketball and handball matches. The local men’s basketball (U BT Cluj-Napoca) and women’s handball (Universitatea Alexandrion Cluj-Napoca) teams hold their games on the hall.

In Craiova, the Sala Polivalentă is also very recent, having been inaugurated in 2012. The arena holds 4200 spectators in the matches of the city’s volleyball, basketball and handball teams. The Sala Sporturilor Olimpia, in Ploiești, was renovated from 2011 to 2013, and now welcomes 3500 spectators for the matches of CSU Asesoft Ploiești, the most successful basketball team in the country during this century, winners of 10 of the last 11 national championships.

Staying indoors but on a different surface, the Patinoarul Olimpic Brașov is a multi-purpose ice rink, with 1600 seats, inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of hosting the festivities of the 2013 European Youth Winter Olympic Festival. The ski jumping events for the Festival were held at the Râșnov Ski Jump, a hill that has hosted rounds of the ladies’ FIS Ski Jumping World Cup.

Meanwhile, the Patinoarul Mihai Flamaropol holds 8.000 and is the venue used by the Steaua Rangers, the ice hockey section of Steaua Bucharest and the sport’s most decorated club in Romania. The capital’s rink will be demolished to make space for a new 16.000-seats facility on the proximity of the Arena Națională.

Getting back outside, the Arenele BNR is a tennis complex with 11 courts – including a stadium with capacity for 5.000 – which hosts the WTA and ATP Tour annual events held in Bucharest.

Yearly Events

You can’t really say Romania has a league nested on Europe’s top-level (except maybe in women’s handball), but you’ll surely find some decent matches dotted around the country in various sports. Several handball, basketball and football teams are competitive on international competitions, so keep an eye on the league’s schedules from August to May.
For some of the main sporting events held on the country during the year, look below:

Irina Deleanu Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics (World Cup Series)
Bucharest, April

The Arenele BNR Stadium on a night session

BRD Năstase Țiriac Trophy (Romanian Open), Tennis (ATP Tour)
Bucharest, April

Cluj-Napoca International Marathon, Athletics

Cluj-Napoca, April

Spring Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics
Ploiești, May

BRD Bucharest Open, Tennis (WTA Tour)
Bucharest, July

Bucharest Trophy, (Women’s) Handball

Bucharest, August

Constanța-Mamaia ETU Triathlon European Cup, Triathlon
Constanța-Mamaia (Constanța district), September

Bucharest International Marathon, Athletics
Bucharest, October

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