Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Romanian Abramovich fuels rise of CFR Cluj

October 1, 2008

Club from the capital of Transylvania qualified for the Champions League thanks to the largesse of Arpad Paszkany

Down the road from Romania's biggest shopping mall stands the recently constructed home of CFR Cluj, the surprise package of this season's Champions League. Both buildings are the work of Arpad Paszkany, the football club's owner, who has earned the sobriquet “Romanian Abramovich” after pouring millions into securing top-flight football for the capital of Transylvania.

The wealth of the 38-year-old former builder, perfume and car-parts trader turned property tycoon has propelled the provincial club into the upper echelons of European football and mixed a cocktail of fury and envy that may sound familiar in West London. Russian-style high spending on football has reached the former Soviet bloc.

Cluj are no threadbare club now, but in 2002 they plied a modest trade in front of meagre crowds in the third division of the Romanian league. Then Paszkany bought them and started to build a new stadium in the town centre and to shop for Portuguese and South American players. Some €50million (about £39.5million) and five years later, at the business end of a bitter season last spring, with accusations of bribery and skulduggery flying between Transylvania and Bucharest, Cluj squeaked past Steaua Bucharest by a point to claim their first title on the last day. No team from outside the Steaua-Dynamo-Rapid Bucharest triangle had won the league since 1991.

Paprika spice is added to the animosity against the “Romanian Abramovich” and his “bought” success because CFR's sugar daddy is of ethnic Hungarian stock. Cluj-Napoca in former days was known as Kolozsvar, its Hungarian name. Its football club was founded by the Magyars in 1907, in the twilight years of the old empire, as the Kolozsvar Railwaymen's Sports Club (KVSC), becoming CFR after the First World War. When Hungary was awarded northern Transylvania by Hitler in 1940, they competed in the Hungarian league.

The Magyars, once in the majority, now comprise fewer than 20 per cent of the city's population. Most follow CFR. Few support the city rivals and traditionally bigger Cluj team, Universitatea, a club who rejected Paszkany's advances before he turned to CFR. The derby match between the teams in December last year sparked fighting in the downtown area. A bar frequented by a CFR fan group was petrol-bombed.

About 1.5million ethnic Hungarians live in Transylvania, one of the largest minorities in Europe. While Hungarians continue to complain about discrimination, many Romanians view them as a suspicious fifth column who refuse to integrate or speak the language of the country they inhabit. Gheorghe Funar, the “Mad Mayor” of Cluj in the 1990s, thrived on the division and delighted in bizarre provocations such as painting the town's kerbstones and street furniture in Romania's national colours and scrubbing from public statues evidence of Hungarian heritage.

Gheorghe “Gigi” Becali, the president of Steaua, spat vitriol at CFR last season - “It would be a national shame if a team of foreigners, a Hungarian team, represents Romania in the Champions League,” he said. It was not lost on Becali that Steaua assisted CFR's path to the big league by improving Romania's Uefa coefficent the previous year and guaranteeing a place in the Champions League group phase to the title-winners.

However, the multi-ethnic region of Transylvania has a long tradition of tolerance and education that has survived the Ceausescu era and the Funar years. Cluj is booming. Foreign investment has poured in. Wage levels have soared as firms such as Nokia and Siemens coax workers to their new plants. Malls have sprouted in the past few years, the largest of which is in Paszkany's portfolio.

From his office in Cluj's new hilltop 24,000-seat stadium, the club's owner, who is only a quarter Hungarian, looked out over the city. “I don't care about nationality, or where the players I sign come from, only how well they play for CFR,” he said. “I speak four languages. In the dressing-room the language is English. We have many Hungarian fans but also many who follow us from Portugal and southern Europe. Most of our fans are Romanian anyway, as most of Cluj is Romanian. CFR is a typically Transylvanian team. It stands for a Europe without borders.”

Perhaps nowhere else in Eastern Europe do two large ethnic groups stand together supporting the same team. The Hungarian-dominated KVSC ultra group share chanting slots with their Romanian comrades in the Commando Gruia section. Afterwards, the two choirs often join forces for communal singalongs in the club bars, these days usually to celebrate victory. As Radu, an ethnic-Romanian IT professional, said between songs: “Bucharest and Budapest mean little to us, we are CFR fans, proud to be from Cluj, proud to be Transylvanian.”

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