What’s the first thing a king does when he assumes the throne? Well, when the decade was the 1930s, the country was Romania, and the subject was Carol II, the answer was truly outrageous: he declared his first and foremost priority to get his nation entered into the next FIFA World Cup™!
The seemingly insurmountable problem was that Carol II only seized power 35 days before the maiden edition of the tournament got underway. Yet the 37-year-old extrovert was undeterred by the extreme lack of time, or by the fact Romania had only played its first international exactly eight years earlier.
Somehow, following considerable endeavour, King Carol II succeeded in securing Romania a place at Uruguay 1930, beating FIFA’s deadline for entry by a mere three days. The monarch immediately granted an amnesty to all players suspended for football-related offences. Then, rather than trusting coach Costel Radulescu to select the squad, King Carol II chose it himself!
The Romanian ruler nevertheless hit a snag. The core of his best players worked for an English oil company, which refused to grant them the three months’ paid leave necessary to participate at the tournament and warned that anyone who did travel to Uruguay would have no job to return to. King Carol II intervened. Flexing his considerable muscle, he phoned the company’s boss and insisted he would close it down unless they relented. Naturally, they did.
And so, on 21 June 1930, the Romanians boarded the Conte Verde in Genoa. A short stop later in Villefranche-sur-Mer, they were joined on board by the France squad and FIFA President Jules Rimet, who had the Trophy in his suitcase. Thereafter, the Belgians got on in Barcelona, before the luxurious Italian ocean liner picked up Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
During the 16-day, cross-Atlantic trek, Radulescu put his 19 players through fitness drills on one of vast vessel’s ten decks. When they did ball work, however, the Romania coach had 20 charges to oversee – oh, yes, King Carol II couldn’t resist a kickaround!
Romania were placed in the three-team Group 3, with only the winners advancing to the semi-finals. It took 22-year-old Adalbert Desu just 50 seconds to fire them ahead in their opener against Peru (only eight players have scored a faster goal in the FIFA World Cup’s 19 editions, namely Hakan Sukur, Vaclav Masek, Ernst Lehner, Bryan Robson, Bernard Lacombe, Emile Veinante and Arne Nyberg). The South Americans equalised 15 minutes from time, but, belying the tired legs expected from such an exhaustive journey, the Romanians score twice thereafter, through Constantin Stanciu and Nicolae Kovacs, to clinch a 3-1 victory.
Next up Romania faced a Uruguay team including formidable players such as Jose Andrade, Jose Nasazzi, Pedro Cea and Hector Scarone. Losing 4-0 to the eventual champions was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of for the south-eastern Europeans.
Football underwent an immediate popularity explosion in Romania – one that has seen the sport evolve to become nothing short of a national obsession.
“The Romanian people are absolutely crazy about football,” the Balkan nation’s most famous sporting son, Gheorghe Hagi, would later explain. “Their passion is indescribable.”
Carol II vacated the throne in 1940, and passed away in Portugal 13 years later – exactly 60 years ago this Thursday. The man whose father and mother were born in Germany and England respectively will, nevertheless, live infinitely in the annals of Romanian football history as the inspiration behind the birth of that rhapsodic love affair between Romanians and the beautiful game.
Long live the legend of the football-crazy king.