A Heartfelt Farewell to Bucharest’s Iconic Stadium

Giulesti Stadium

A Heartfelt Farewell to Bucharest’s Iconic Stadium

The Giulesti stadium had almost fallen to pieces before the bulldozers showed up – but many Romanians will still mourn its disappearance.

The first match I attended in Giulesti was on November 23, 2006. It was a rainy and cold autumn evening in Bucharest and Rapid hosted the Czech side Mladá Boleslav for an unattractive League Europe group stage game.

The football was not great and the game ended up in a boring 1-1 draw, but I became a Giulesti regular from that day on.

I liked the atmosphere. It might have been the sense of family shared by those thousands of fans that fought the freezing weather, singing and jumping non-stop.

Perhaps it was also the good humour with which they went home after a disappointing 90 minutes of bad football. They seemed to react to the team’s failures just as loving parents do to their children’s shortcomings; I saw wisdom in that.

Every match day since that depressing Rapid-Mladá game, I walked from my flat to the Lutheran Church, where I bought a coke at the nearby convenience store and waited for the bus.

The vehicle filled up with Rapid fans as it advanced between elegant and decadent-looking villas, through the dark streets leading to Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main train station.

We all jumped out at the last stop before the stadium, where we merged into the mass of supporters walking towards the arena.

The spotlights illuminated the street and the stadium’s peeling burgundy-coloured walls, which stood out against the dark grey blocks of Giulesti, the popular district that gives the field its name.

The stadium was built in the 1930s, during the interwar period, considered Romania’s Golden Age. King Carol II and his son, the future king Michael, attended the opening ceremony.

Giulesti was designed after Highbury, London’s former Arsenal home. Like the traditional British stadiums, it was located in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, very near the houses and blocks of flats.

As more fans kept arriving from the bus and the metro, and with the tram that stops in front of the stadium, Roma women in long shirts sold sunflower seeds by the stairs. To access the stands one had to walk past dirty walls and climb the stairs. The floor was full of sunflower seeds shells and water coming from the toilets.

Children from the neighbourhood sold coke on the stair landings. They used to buy big Pepsi bottles and pour drinks from them that they then sold in big paper cups.

The peeling dirty white paint walls were full of graffiti. The bowels of Giulesti always reminded me of the Turin’s old Communale Stadium that Ricky Tognazzi portrayed in Ultrà, his cult film on the culture of the tifosi – fansin 1990s Italy.

In football terms, Romania has always been an Italian colony, which you could easily see as soon as you emerged in the stands.

The names of supporters groups were inspired by the Italian ultras, as were the creative banners mocking the rivals displayed in long white sheets behind the goal.

With adapted lyrics in Romanian, Rapid’s ultras sang the same tunes that fill Italian stadiums every weekend. They also used big and small flags, football scarfs and plenty of flares and fireworks in their tifos.

Since 2006, only the north end was in use in Giulesti; the south end was closed because of risk of collapse.

After the scarf-based choreography with which the hymn was sung, the north end exploded in a frantic furore of songs, slogans, flares and fireworks that had the firefighters running for cover.

There were also boring evenings. When the game and the atmosphere were not great, I went up to the last row and contemplated the city lights and the cars moving in the distance.

Rapid was funded by railway workers, and has been related for most of its history to the Ministry of Transport. (Under the Communist regime, Rapid was the Ministry of Transport’s team, as Dinamo belonged to the Interior Ministry and Steaua to the Defence Ministry). Giulesti is built by railways and not far from Gara de Nord.

Leaning on the small wall behind the seats, I liked to watch the trains passing and imagine who might be travelling in them. A first-year student going back to Iasi to spend the weekends with her parents?

Or, if the game was on a Sunday, a Brasov family returning home after visiting their son in the capital. Sometimes, when the stadium was full, or when Rapid played against Steaua Bucuresti, the drivers tooted the horn and the fans roared their salute back.

We never were as happy in Giulesti as when Marius Sumudica was Rapid’s coach. Inspired by his contagious enthusiasm, the team developed a bold and joyous way to play that brought thrills and happiness to the stands.

Marius Sumudica. Photo: Wikipedia

I particularly remember the agonising triumph over Unirea Urziceni in a late winter night, with the field covered by snow. I relished the ambition and goal hunger the team showed until the last minute while trashing Victoria Branesti, 7-1.

Sumudica himself was one reason to take the bus at the Lutheran Church and go to the stadium.

He once celebrated a goal by sprinting from the bench to the end of the rectangle, where he dived towards the north end’s supporters. He was sent off for invading the pitch, but the red card didn’t subdue his euphoria.

Before taking his place in the tribune, he hugged the referee and gave him a passionate kiss on the cheek.

Giulesti stadium was for years a perfect home for a visceral, sentimental and unpretentious club like Rapid.

If what has been published in the media is true, the new Giulesti will be smaller, and will maintain the old stadium’s compact structure.

Fans will continue watching the games very close to the pitch, and what it is also important, Rapid will again be playing beside the railways – in the working-class neighbourhood that has so much defined the club’s character.

Marcel Gascon Barbera is a journalist and lives in Johannesburg. He previously studied and worked in Bucharest.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Marcel Gascón Barberá