Thursday, February 7, 2013

NYT: Symbol of a Struggle

MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania — A city of 38,000 on a plateau in eastern Transylvania, Miercurea Ciuc is famous for three things: its status as one of Romania’s coldest places; its brewery, where the country’s Ciuc beer is produced; and its ice hockey team, which has won the last six Romanian league championships.

But the name on the front of the team’s blue-and-white hockey jerseys is not Miercurea Ciuc. It is Szekelyfold, the Hungarian word for the Szekely Land, a former province of the Kingdom of Hungary. Printed on the ice at the Vakar Lajos rink is the Hungarian name of the team: Hoki Sport Club Csikszereda. The fans at the team’s home games chant the Szekely Land anthem in Hungarian.

The Szekely Land, named for a warrior tribe that dates to the Middle Ages, is a Hungarian-dominated area of Romania, covering three counties in the center of the country. The roughly 1.2 million Hungarians represent Romania’s largest ethnic minority, about 6 percent of the country’s population. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I marooned millions of Hungarians in what is now Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia. The Szekely found themselves cut off and subject to a policy of assimilation, including heavy restrictions on the use of their language, under the former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

But for the past two decades, the region’s ethnic Hungarians have been campaigning for greater autonomy, with Hoki Sport Club Csikszereda in the vanguard. Romania may be a soccer country, but in Csikszereda, ice hockey is the only game in town.

The hockey club functions much like the storied Spanish soccer club Barcelona, which kept alive the flame of Catalan nationalism under the repressive rule of General Franco.

“I can say that this sports club, this ice hockey team, represents the Szekely,” said Papp Elod, the club’s former president, who is now a local politician. “We like to say that ice hockey represents our history as all our ancestors were warriors, and ice hockey needs warriors. There are very few Romanians who play for our club.”

Standing rinkside, Timo Lahtinen, the team’s 65-year-old Finnish coach, said, “Everyone in this town plays hockey and talks about hockey, this is the hockey center of Romania.”

Lahtinen paused, then corrected himself, “Actually, Hungary.”

The success of Csikszereda had caused a problem within Romanian ice hockey. The Romanian national team is almost entirely made up of ethnic Hungarians who play for Csikszereda.

“The whole national team is only my players, and everyone speaks Hungarian,” Lahtinen said.

This anomaly reached a critical point during a 2011 game between Romania and Hungary in Miercurea Ciuc. After the game, almost all of Romania’s players joined with their opponents to sing the Hungarian anthem.

“Some of the paparazzi caught it, and it was a big scandal,” said Attila Goga, Csikszereda’s captain, who has played for the Romanian national team for a decade but holds dual Romanian-Hungarian citizenship. “It’s a little bit strange, but I can see that, too. They don’t understand our situation here.”

There was only one anthem Goga was going to sing.

“Everyone here is Hungarian,” he said. “I feel Hungarian. From a little child I spoke Hungarian. We learn Romanian, too, but Hungarian is my mother language.”

The fall of communism gave some Hungarian minorities the chance to push for greater cultural and political freedoms after years of repression. A move by the Hungarian government in 2010 to grant joint citizenship to its former subjects across Eastern and Central Europe has emboldened old allegiances.

Laszlo Tokes, a former vice president of the European Parliament and one of Romania’s most prominent Hungarian politicians, is campaigning for full Hungarian autonomy within Romania, centered on the Szekley Land, with sports playing an important part.

“Our culture was oppressed,” Tokes said. “So it happened in sport. In Csikszereda that is why it is so important, the role of Hungarian sport life. Hockey sport because it is the people of Hungarian identity. Sport sometimes takes this function and role in a minority.”

Tokes, now a bishop, was a hero of the 1989 revolution that overthrew Ceausescu. When Romania’s secret police attempted to arrest him, his congregation resisted, sparking nationwide protest that brought down the regime.

Tokes called Romanians “very good friends,” but said they did not accept his people as Hungarian.

“Sometimes we are called Romanians speaking Hungarian,” he said. “That is not true. We are full Hungarians in the original sense of the word.”

He added: “Even if we lived on the moon, we would be Hungarian. Even if we are living in Transylvania, Romania, we consider ourselves Hungarians.”

Hoki Sport Club Csikszereda has attracted local businessmen and politicians promoting the Szekely Land. Although its home rink was built in the 1970s, it is well maintained, with a hotel next door to accommodate traveling teams. Inside, the walls are covered with advertisements from local businesses in Hungarian; Ciuc beer is featured prominently. A trophy cabinet heaves with the club’s many honors.

But in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, ice hockey has seen better days. The city’s main rink was partly flooded. On a recent day, a young girl practiced figure skating routines around patches of water pooled on the surface. Stray dogs stalked the perimeter. One stray managed to entangle itself in the hockey nets, until it chewed through the ropes to break free.

“Miercurea Ciuc has a local political and social interest,” said Marius Gliga, the technical director of the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation. “It is a small town. If they want to be seen by the rest of the cities, they have to show something. And they choose sport. The political men in the area use this team to promote themselves.”

Before the revolution, Bucharest was the power center of Romanian ice hockey. Romania’s golden age was in the 1970s and ’80s, when it qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. Back then, Steaua Bucharest, the team of the army, was the dominant squad.

“They used to take from the best players and allowed them to practice rather than have military service, which was good for the players,” said Gliga, who played center for Steaua his entire career. “They had two years of practice, which was very good for them at 18 to 20. That was good for the national team.”

But the abolition of national service, the supremacy of soccer in Bucharest and the influx of money into Csikszereda from businessmen and politicians eager to further the Szekely Land’s cause switched the balance of power.

Now Steaua is a shadow of its former self, and Bucharest provided little more than the office for the federation and the officials for most matches, including the Romanian Cup final in late December between Csikszereda and Corona Brasov, a team that also hails from Transylvania but whose fans chant in Romanian.

Csikszereda went ahead, 2-0, by the end of the second period, and it appeared that another piece of silverware was about to be added to its trophy cabinet.

The Szekely flag was flying when the third period began, but it did not herald the coronation the home supporters had expected. Brasov stormed back, scoring three times in five minutes. When Csikszereda had a player sent to the penalty box with two minutes left, the match was effectively over. Brasov was crowned champion, the players celebrating wildly in front of their traveling fans.

This time the Csikszereda fans chanted in Romanian, the language of the officials who had crammed into two cars and driven five hours from Bucharest to get there.

“Thieves!” they shouted at the referees.

“Peasants!” they chanted.

“We’re Hungarian and the referees are always Romanian, so we always feel that Romanian referees aren’t fair when it comes to matches,” said Szikszai Laszlo, a 22-year-old fan of Csikszereda.

As the Brasov team members passed the cup among themselves on the ice, Lahtinen stood on the sideline wondering how his team had lost the match. He said one of his players was suspended just a few minutes before the start of the match.

“We were by far the best team and then I guess we got tired as they had more players,” he said.

Csikszereda had lost the final, but the fans had still had the chance to see the club play for a seventh league championship in a row. The rink, and the team, remain a symbol of something bigger than ice hockey.

“In the period of communism, local newspapers couldn’t write Csikszereda; you had to write Miercurea Ciuc,” Laszlo said. “Back then this place was a sanctuary. It was the only place where you could speak Hungarian freely. You can still feel that today to a certain level.”

Alina Totti contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania.

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