Three teams, one city, one resurgence
Handball has always been one of the most popular sports in Romania, with few team sports being able to boast such a star-studded record in the country’s history. While both the men’s and the women’s senior teams became world champions in the early 1960s, club handball has also been truly impressive throughout the early stages of the sport.
Dinamo București became the first team to win the Men’s European Champions Cup in 1965, with big domestic rivals Steaua București adding another trophy in 1968. In the Women’s European Champions Cup, Știința București won the inaugural competition, in 1961, with Rapid București doubling down on that success three years later.
Later the sport became more and more popular in other areas of the country, such as Ramnicu Valcea in the women’s competitions. Oltchim Ramnicu Valcea won the Women’s IHF Cup in 1984 and 1989 and the Women’s EHF Cup Winners’ Cup in 2006, while reaching the final in the EHF Champions League Women in 2010.
However, Bucharest has been slowly getting back to the front in handball. Women’s powerhouse CSM won the EHF Champions League Women in 2016, while Dinamo have become increasingly competitive in the Machineseeker EHF Champions League in the past decade.
In fact, the Romanian capital is the only city to boast three teams in the knockout phases of the European premium competitions, with CSM and Dinamo being joined by CS Rapid București, the reigning champions in the Romanian women’s league. Only Denmark and Hungary – with four teams each – have more representation among the top 12 sides in both European premium competitions.
But how did Bucharest engineer its comeback as the handball capital of Romania?
A revolution for Dinamo
It all boils down to financial backing and building from the ground up, especially in Dinamo’s case. The team which won 18 titles in the Romanian league and needs only one point to secure its 19th this season, found themselves on the brink of liquidation after moving from town to town in the early 2010s.
However, interest in the team, which has a huge fanbase, was still big and the club was finally able to secure financial backing for a couple of seasons. With a new arena built in the Dinamo complex – which also hosts a stadium and an Olympic swimming pool – results started to come and the team returned to the EHF Champions League in 2016/17.
Dinamo have always been a household name in Romania, but the interest got even bigger when the team secured the signing of Xavi Pascual, the former Barça coach, who arrived in 2021 and ushered in a new era with significant signings. Last season, Dinamo found themselves in the challenging group B – which included three of the eventual EHF FINAL4 participants – and finished seventh.
But this time around, the Romanian champions finished fifth in their group and will face German powerhouse THW Kiel in the play-offs, being big underdogs against a side which has plenty of experience.
“It is really an excellent performance for Romania, which will only make the interest grow in Romanian handball. It is also good for Bucharest, but this also needs to materialise in better performance for the national team,” says Pascual, who is also the coach of the Romania men’s national team.
Fierce competition drives progress on the women’s side
In the women’s competition, CSM Bucuresti were already a household name after delivering one of the biggest surprises in history, taking a mind-boggling win over huge favourites Györi Audi ETO KC on penalties in the EHF FINAL4 2016.
CSM have not since been able to replicate that success, and have not made the trip to Budapest since 2019. Yet they have consistently been one of the teams to beat, winning five titles in six seasons in the Romanian league between 2015 and 2021.
This time around, though, they have beefed up their squad, enjoyed the best start in history in the EHF Champions League Women, and are virtual winners in the Romanian league, with a nine-point advantage over arch-rivals Rapid with seven rounds to go.
“The team’s mission is to galvanise support for sport in Bucharest and in the country. Of course, the senior team is crucial, it is the top of the pyramid and it needs to provide role models for the young players and for everybody, basically. But when you have players like Cristina Neagu or Grace Zaadi, or even looking back in our history, like Isabelle Gullden and Jelena Grubisic, you know there is plenty of room to grow excellent young players for the future,” says Vlad Enăchescu, the president of the handball department at CSM.
“We have been trying to provide this and we are proud to see that we have already a young player emerging in our squad, who has been throughout her whole handball journey at CSM, since she was only nine years old. Mihaela Mihai made her debut in the Champions League and will be one of our best players in the future.”
CSM’s dominance in Bucharest, as the team usually had sold-out arenas in the European premium competition, has now been challenged by CS Rapid București, the team which completes the trio of sides from the Romanian capital qualified for the knockout phases of the European premium competition.
The club was founded in 1923, with the football team being hugely popular in Bucharest, and its fans branding themselves as the misfits in the system. However, they have embraced handball since the team was promoted back to the first league in 2019.
Before CSM, Rapid brought the title back to Bucharest for the last time in the Romanian league in 2003, but this is their first-ever season in the EHF Champions League Women. The group phase saw them finish fourth in the standings, with home wins over Györ and Team Esbjerg and a home draw against Metz Handball.
“Of course it is an honour to represent Bucharest and Romania in such a competition and we will always aim higher and higher in the competition. We want to achieve excellent results for the country and for the city, although it is always a challenging competition, with the best teams in Europe fighting for the trophy,” says Rapid president Bogdan Vasiliu.
“Rapid is not only a team, it is a state of spirit, it is something you need to see or feel yourself. Games this season in the Champions League, especially when we played at home, were something amazing, you could see even how the opponents were amazed by what our fans did,” Vasiliu adds.
However, there is a catch. While all three Bucharest teams have outdone themselves this season and always took the fight to the opponents, something is still missing from Bucharest: a state-of-the-art arena. All three sides played in the old Polivalenta Arena, built in 1974. The Polivalenta has undergone some extensive repairs, but is still somewhat off of the standards needed for such clubs.
But who knows, maybe with some success in the Champions League, something might happen and these three clubs will find a new home, where their regular attendances of 5,300 fans will be beaten.
Photos © Mihai Neacsu, Răzvan Păsărică, Sabin Malisevschi