The Romanian ice hockey “Superliga” consists of 6 teams. (I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether that’s because it genuinely is a superleague of the 6 top teams in the country, or whether it’s because there are basically 6 teams in Romania). Of these six teams, 3 are from Bucharest and the other three are from Hargita County. Hargita County is where I live and essentially it is the one part of the country (along with neighbouring Covasna County) that is majority Hungarian. (and the majority is of the 90% variety). Hence the league is basically a sporting venue for dealing with ethnic tension. The fans of the Bucharest teams probably see the Hargitans as merely hicks rather than as a representative of some kind of pro-Hungarian independence movement, but the fans of the three Transylvanian teams certainly see themselves as representative of something more fundamental. It’s Barcelona vs. Real Madrid with fewer people. All it needs is a banner at the games reading (in English) “Transylvania is not Romania”.
So, back to the hockey. Despite only having 6 teams there are in reality only two that are any good. Steaua Bucharest and Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc. So each year there is a league and a cup. The final of the cup is contested by Steaua and Sport Club, and the end of the league play off between the top two teams in the table is between Steaua and Sport Club. It’s like the Scottish Premier League only more so. It’s kind of a waste of time even having a regular season and they should probably just skip ahead to the playoffs. Anyway a few weeks ago the cup final took place in Bucharest and while I wasn’t here and don’t really know what happened, there were some let’s-just-say dodgy refereeing decisions that led to the game being won by Steaua. Sport Club refused their second place medals and gave them instead to the referee, and the fans in Csikszereda awarded the team the “Cup of Truth” when they got back from the capital. As a result of that game, it was decided that the referees for the upcoming play-off series must be foreign (i.e. not Romanian – also presumably not Hungarian).
So last weekend was the first game in the best of seven play-off final. It was in Bucharest and sounds like a real cracker. After two periods (of three) Steaua were leading 4-1 and it seemed like the game was lost, but somehow, Csikszereda came back to level the match and then win it 5-4 in overtime. The second game was yesterday back here in the sticks, and as a result of that epic comeback, the town was buzzing.
We arrived at the stadium at about 4.45 for a 6.30pm kickoff (kickoff? Must be face-off or something?). Even that early we heard rumours flying around that the rink was already full. The fact that we had tickets seemed to mean very little – and as they weren’t attached to a seat but were just general admission, it was clear that it could be a problem. As crowds flooded in we had to wait for the fourth member of our party, Gyözö, to arrive. The “stadium” (more like a glorified sports hall) was full, but there were still loads of people entering. Hundreds must have gone in in just the 15 minutes we waited outside anxiously for Gyözö to show up. Finally he turned up and we could go in. It was packed, but not beyond the bounds of reason. However it was fairly clear that the number of tickets and the number of seats were not exactly the same thing. As we all crowded into the seating area above the team benches, there were obviously no remaining seats. In fact there were probably already 2 people to each seat, and the crowds showed no sign of abating. We stood on the walkway for a while until the police appeared and told us to move up somewhere. It wasn’t clear how we were to do that or where we ought to head for. The staircases between seats were all occupied too. Eventually we found somewhere to stand between seats, and relaxed for a while. Until it became obvious that in fact everyone would end up standing on the seats to see, and therefore being between seats wouldn’t help. One old man next to Erika complained that he had arrived three hours early in order to get a good seat – which he would now have to stand on. He’d even brought a cushion for himself, which was now proving to be not a lot of use. One bank of seats was curiously empty though. “Reserved” by some unwritten reservation system. These were for the hard core fans, who presumably follow the team through the whole season, attending every 10-0 thrashing of Gyergyo or Dinamo Bucharest, and probably going to away games too. It does seem reasonable that when the season gets interesting and the rest of us Laszlo-come-latelys showed up, that these more serious fans ought to have some kind of special treatment.
At about 5.45 the Steaua fans showed up. There were probably about 50 or so of them and they occupied one corner of the arena, surrounded by an equal number of policemen. There was lots of booing from our side. Then they unfurled a Romanian flag and the volume of the booing went up dramatically. They were told, quite vehemently, to go home. This was done in Romanian, which was a nice gesture, as most epithets were hurled, defiantly, in Hungarian. The next chant was to repeat the word “gypsies” over and over in a crescendo of meta-racism. I have to say that the idea of abusing an ethnic group who you dislike by referring to them as another ethnic group you dislike even more is taking the shitty casual crowd racism concept to a whole new level. While European football is gripped in the midst of discussions about terrace bigotry, and a “Kick Racism Out Of Football” campaign, Romanian ice hockey it seems is not yet ready for such direct movements and will need to start, one step at a time, with a “Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Racism” campaign.
The hardcore fans arrived, daubed in blue and white paint and hats and shirts [the local high school’s geography teacher was one and as he looked at the massed ranks of not-so-loyal fans around him, started chanting “Szervusztok, szervusztok, szervusztok” (hello everyone)], and as if on cue the teams came out to warm up. Booing for the Steaua players seemed to override cheering the local team. The most instantly noticeable thing about the Steaua team is that principle sponsor is something called “PUFF”. I have no idea what PUFF is or what they do (probably something prosaic like manufacturing distributor caps or underwriting mortgages), but it was quite weird to see a whole team of skew-nosed, toothless, rough-as-fuck ice-hockey players to be skating around bearing the motto “PUFF” proudly on their chests. If I could put pictures on here, I’d post one and caption it “Steaua – a bunch of puffs?”, but since I can’t you’ll just have to imagine that kind of rapier sharp Wildean wit, and trust me on how hysterically funny it would have been.
Anyway, the game. I’ve seen ice hockey on TV before, but never watched a game in the flesh. It’s much better when you’re there. Not only because of the fans and all that atmosphere thang, but also because you can actually see the puck. Also when I’ve watched it on TV I’ve just ended up marveling at the skill of the players – they can skate AND whip this puck back and forth between them – and not imagined that they were fallible in any way. When you’re there (and when you’re supporting Sport Club) you can see just as many errors and groan just as agonizingly as if you were watching, say, Sheffield Wednesday.
Most of the action was one way, and there were a number of penalties called on those dirty southern capital dwellers (y’see the similarities between English football and Romanian ice hockey are not invisible). In particular whoever was playing number 23 for Steaua seemed to spend more time in the penalty box than he did on the ice. I had him down as a Romanian Steve Bould. Sport Club poured forward shooting whenever they got a chance but seemingly unable to get very close to the goal before doing so. Ten minutes in they did get close and the shot rebounded off the keeper and was rammed home by a player following up. The place went nuts. We were 1-0 up and looking good. Steaua hadn’t even had an attack. Then less than a minute later, they did. And they scored. And a few minutes later they had another one, and scored again. And before the first period was over it had happened again. Three attacks, three goals. In fact, on three occasions in the first period Sport Club had a player in the penalty box, and on all three of those occasions Steaua scored. Whenever Sport Club had the man advantage it seemed to actually interfere with their rhythm and they were less dangerous than when it was five against five.
The second period started off similar to the first. All Csikszereda for most of the period, and the first goal went to us. 3-2 and we still had a chance. But then another Steaua powerplay (that’s what it’s called when your opponent has a man in the sin bin, see how much attention I paid?), and another goal. (To be fair we did survive two other powerplays that period unscathed). This fourth goal, to add insult to injury, was scored by a native of Csikszereda who’d recently been transferred to Steaua.
With about 4 or 5 minutes left in the period and the score 4-2, things started warming up on the ice. Violence wise, I mean. And since this is what most people seem to watch ice hockey for, I was glad we were getting the other part of the show. A number of fights broke out and at one point both teams had two blokes in the penalty box. At one point a Steaua player ended up face down on the ice, semi-comatose, and unable to get up. The ice began to turn red around his face and the medics were called to help him up. The Csikszereda fans started booing him and chanting (in Romanian) “This is Steaua”, as if to say that this kind of pathetic unmanly behaviour – not playing on while lying face down, bleeding and semi-conscious – was not the kind of thing that a true Szekely man would do, and was in fact more befitting of someone who had the word “PUFF” emblazoned across his midriff.
Sadly the fight club nature of proceedings seemed to end with the second period, and the third and final period, while conducted at a frenetic pace, was much more gentlemanly. Perhaps the Russian ref had gone in to each team at the break and told them to cut it out. Whatever had happened, it was very much like the other two periods in terms of action. First ten minutes, all Csikszereda, loads of shots. Last ten minutes, no particular direction, lots of penalties and nothing that resembled a chance for the home team. Supporting a team in blue and white, with a passionate home crowd, full of sound and fury but being beaten by a more skilful team brought on some flashbacks I can tell you. I’d like to be able to say that Csikszereda were laid low by a combination of bent refereeing, dirty Wallachian bastardy, and just plain bad luck, as I think it would finish this off nicely. But I can’t. Steaua were clearly better, and deserved to win, despite having less possession, and despite me not really knowing what I’m talking about. But when a team has to rely on dribbling to go forward, since they are unable to string two passes together, you kind of realize they’re a tad rubbish, even if you’re supporting them.
At the end after both teams had shaken hands with each other, and we’d applauded our boys off the ice, the Steaua players came and applauded us for our fandom and we applauded them back for their ice hockey skills. Frankly, when all is said and done and despite the initial somewhat obnoxious nationalism from both sets of fans, the crowd were pretty similar to an English (or otherwise) football crowd. Regionalism, certainly, and dislike of the opposition purely for being the opposition, but very little “Hungarian” vs. Romanian. It would be kind of weird if there were to be honest, since a fair few of the Sport Club team had Romanian names, as well as a smattering of other nationalities (Russian, mostly), and there was at least one Hungarian sounding player on the Steaua team.
The series now goes back to Bucharest, where there will be two games next weekend, and then back here the weekend after that. Hopefully, Sport Club will win at least one of the games in the capital so that when they come back here they could actually win the series in Csikszereda. But I’m not holding out much hope. I saw one good team on Saturday night and it wasn’t the one I was supporting. Still, who knows? What’s that quote about it being the hope that kills you and not the despair? I suspect I need to look it up.
God this was a long one. I have the distinct feeling that I’m a frustrated sports writer. And destined to remain so re-reading all that. Anyway if you really want to keep up with Romanian ice hockey action told from a more fact-based perspective, this is the best place to go: http://hem.bredband.net/hochei/