Illustration by Ferenczy András
Children of Girueta and the Wastelands of Football for All
Football can be more than a sport. Obviously, playing football can help improve the health of city dwellers. Accessible pitches, modernized facilities, or well-trained coaches can harness the sport’s popularity to get people to play it. But there is a further effect of football to consider. The beautiful game can strongly contribute to repairing the social health of the cities we live in. The football pitch has a unique ability to bring together people from different social backgrounds. Unfortunately, in twenty-first-century Bucharest, the chances that people from diverse backgrounds interact on the neighborhood football pitches are almost null. The rental prices or the costs of football training for children are prohibitive for a significant number of people, with this leading to a very high level of homogeneity of the sport. As my research on Bucharest’s neighborhood stadiums shows, things have went downhill at great speed after 1989. In this regard, the city has a lot to learn from its recent past. A number of the small-sized workers’ stadiums built in Bucharest’s areas of blocks during communism used to work as informal neighborhood centers where residents would gather not only to play football but also to spend their leisure time together, relax, and socialize. Girueta is possibly the most vivid example of this. Unfortunately, the former stadium located in Bucharest’s neighborhood of Berceni, where you could once see people sunbathing in the stands or kids playing in the shade of the tall poplar trees surrounding it, is gone. On the now vacant lot, a supermarket is said to soon take its place.
Andrei Mihail is a medical anthropologist who spent several years documenting the individual experiences of patients with severe diseases, such as renal insufficiency, leprosy or tuberculosis. As of late, he has changed his research interest turning to the study of the social life of football. He can be found roaming the ruins of the former communist sports complexes trying to understand the demise of football after the Revolution of 1989 or talking to the fans of well-established Romanian football teams to collect the stories of the stands.
Ferenczy András is an illustrator and animator living in Cluj-Napoca who is attracted to and inspired by a minimalist visual approach, with an aesthetic focused on introducing metaphysical elements in graphic compositions as a means to explore the grotesque of everyday life. You can see some of his works here.
Daniel Popa has been an actor since 2000, when he graduated UNATC (National University of Theater and Film) as part of the last generation under the supervision of Olga Tudorache. Ever since his university years, he worked with Bulandra Theater in Bucharest but he was mostly active on the independent theatre scene, at Green Hours’ LUNI Theater, participating in many national and international festivals. Daniel is the founder and artistic director of Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association. His latest project as an actor is Totul va fi diferit, an online performance based on a concept by Ilinca Manolache, in collaboration with Teatrul Mic, where he also provides the translation, adaptation, editing, and direction.
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu
“The best thing that football gave me was the chance to get to know human beings. I could see both sides of the society we live in that way” stated Sócrates in an older interview for BBC Sport . The Brazilian football player’s background and personal history were very different from those of his teammates in post-1950s Brazil, as most of them came from poor families. With little access to education, and no other “career opportunities” to speak of, football opened for his teammates perhaps the only door to a better life.
For Sócrates, however, it opened a window: “If I had stayed a doctor I would have stayed in just one area of society and only got to know one side of life,” he said in the same interview. Coming from a family better off than the majority of Brazilian families at the time, the footballer was enrolled by his parents at the best school in Ribeirão Preto, his home town, and then went on to eventually graduate from medical school. Throughout his education, he never stopped playing football becoming one of the world’s best midfielders. In his case, playing a sport was not only a source of fame and money. It also enabled him to develop a type of sociological imagination as C. Wright Mills calls our ability to understand the wider social world in which we live, beyond the limits of our own experiences. One could say that, via his teammates’ stories, football helped Sócrates to experience himself the rancid realities of Brazil and to better understand them. But most of all it enabled him to empathize more with poverty and raise his voice against it.
Playing sports can be a great preventive treatment, and not only because it can help us not develop certain illnesses. If designed properly, it can improve significantly the social health of our communities. Football in particular, due to its popularity, could be one of the tools best suited for this job. Sócrates’s experience could serve us all, enabling us to better understand the realities of neighbors that we know less, and the football pitch could be the ideal meeting place. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Football is political as its image changes with the paradigms we use to shape our societies or cities. And we only need to turn to Bucharest’s recent history to see how that happens. After the Revolution of 1989, as the income of many of its residents increased, class aspirations started to have a strong influence on the social dynamics of Bucharest. We live in a city that increasingly fosters isolation, with individuals trying to barricade themselves in their own worlds or in the “higher” ones to which they aspire. The new residential complexes best illustrate these phenomena. The barriers, the high fences that set them off from their surroundings, the guards or the coils of barbed wire are just some of the elements of our social isolation. We are more and more unwilling to live around those who cannot afford the status we aspire to.
Football services in Bucharest are also increasingly concentrated in areas where the people who afford to pay a few hundred lei per month for their children’s training sessions and pitch rental live. The monthly fees are essential to the survival of these services, given that they are mostly private and depend on the potential customers actually buying them. Hence the tendency of these services to follow the people who can afford them and to find locations closest to the Bucharest middle class. And so the landscape of neighborhood-level football becomes ever more homogenous. The children training at the various football academies or the young people who rent the pitches interact with people from similar social backgrounds, with similar levels of capitals. And those suffering in the shadow of the effects of Bucharest capitalism come to afford playing this sport less and less. In other words, the current political and economic organization excludes them from the capital city’s football landscape, resulting in a marginalization in sports participation that adds to the other forms of exclusion that the city is producing. In the Bucharest-Ilfov area, at least 12.6% of residents are, according to the National Institute of Statistics, at risk of poverty or social exclusion. That means 330,000 people whose reality becomes even more invisible in the context of sharper spatial inequalities between the “good” areas and the periphery. The sports infrastructure of local capitalism is transformed into one more instrument of social exclusion, creating a world that makes us less and less capable of understanding otherness.
To change this reality even a little bit, one needn’t look too far. We can look into our own past, take those ways of doing things that worked better then and adapt them to the present. From my intensive research of the workers’ football infrastructures of communist Bucharest over the past few years, I found out that many of them are gone or abandoned. They have been replaced by malls, office buildings or residential complexes, or partially scrapped by their owners while waiting for a more lucrative future. So I set out to map these sports infrastructures and to uncover the history of those emblematic for Bucharest’s grassroots sports. And this is how I came to roam the streets of Berceni and Chitila neighborhoods, talking to older residents, as well as former football players or coaches who used to be active on the teams using these stadiums. Originally, my plan was to understand the role these sports facilities played in the development of grassroots football and, later, the professional football that brought happiness to many of us during the bleak 1980s and 1990s. I found out however that most of these infrastructures played a wider-reaching role in the social life of the neighborhoods they were located in.
Girueta is perhaps the most vivid example of this. The stadium was built in southern Bucharest on Drumul Găzarului, nestled between the communist blocks of flats that appeared along with it in the mid-1960s. Today only those privy to its past could tell that people once played football here. The goalposts are gone, and so are the stands, the former locker rooms with their sauna and rehabilitation pool that the players enjoyed so much seem a fairytale, as for the smaller training pitches that once surrounded the stadium, not one trace of them is left. The vacant lot is temporarily ran over by the scrubs of abandonment. Nature is most likely to disappear as well to make room for the future hypermarket that an international chain is planning to build here, despite having already built another one only 300 meters away. To spruce up their image in the neighborhood, the developers promised to build a football pitch on the roof of the future hypermarket, in an embarrassing sportswashing move that feels anyway half-baked. In doing so, they tried to mitigate the neighbors’ complaints about the pointlessness of a new construction that would only crowd further an already overbuilt neighborhood, with only a few public spaces and green areas left. People’s passionate stories of Girueta during my fieldwork days in the area hooked me. Through the interviews I conducted, it somehow became my favorite of all the sports complexes my research was unearthing. What fascinated me was that, besides the former football players’ praises of the facilities from a sports perspective, many residents rather recalled the meaning of the building for the neighborhood’s social life. Girueta was more than nostalgia about the football matches that people could still remember. Its contemporaries regretted the disappearance of a central place of sociability in their neighborhood’s life, a space where both the older residents of the area of houses and the newcomers living in the communist blocks came together.
“Mothers would bring their babies here for fresh air because of the poplar trees. They’d stroll around, the babies could sleep outside. It was quiet, no cars, no gases. Old people’d come too, they’d spread their blanket and sunbathe in the stands. They’d bring their towel and a small bottle with water to splash on themselves and they’d sunbathe. My own daughter, she’d sleep at the stadium.” Victor witnessed the Girueta stadium being built. All around the fence of the sports complex, the workers had planted a row of poplars that would provide shade to the spectators and part of the pitch in the summer. The trees grew fast becoming one of the main attractions during hot summer days. While adults and children relaxed in the stands or the green areas of Girueta, the teens could play on the training pitches next to the big stadium—which was not accessible to the public as the grass needed to be protected for the games of the main teams. The smaller pitches however could be used by everybody once the training sessions of the children and teen groups were over. Mircea used to play here in the 1980s and remembered how the neighborhood would take over the stadium whenever they had a chance. “There were people coming to Girueta for their Sunday morning exercise on the pitch, not older than 40. They’d play a game of football in the morning, then start barbecuing, they ate mici, drank beer, and socialized. There were no interdictions.” Free access was very important because it allowed people to gather around the football pitch. Similar memories were shared by many of my interlocutors. Girueta did bring up more vivid images, but the place was hardly an exception.
For those familiar with Bucharest’s Pantelimon neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the memories of Girueta echo similar moments in the history of Metalul stadium. Green spaces, people spending their leisure time together, children and teens playing football on the pitches behind the stands, or the competitions that brought the neighborhood together at some sort of impromptu country fairs. With only minor variations, this is also the story of Tracțiunea, the stadium in the middle of the railroad workers’ enclave at the other end of Chitila, of Laromet in Străulești, Olimpia or Urbis stadiums. Many of the residential neighborhoods built during communism hold such stories.
Without a real estate market interested solely in the economic value of urban land, many sports infrastructures of the communist era were built near residential areas. Since there was no pressure to make them profitable, they were more accessible. The factories and other institutions that had furnished them were not concerned about them being used without producing direct revenues for them. After all, those residential areas of blocks were inhabited by the working class that the communist regime claimed through its propaganda to support. As a result, many factory managers, trade-union leaders or Party secretaries in institutions—as this was the trinity that decided the allocation of money for workers’ sporting organizations—managed to build an infrastructure useful for both professional and grassroots football and public leisure provision. Free access to the pitches made it possible for all boys (and less often girls) who had an interest in football to actually play it, to be selected and enrolled in the basic structures of the sport. As for those less talented, they still had public spaces in their own neighborhoods where leisure was not subject to consumption culture like the one monopolizing our leisure today.
To conclude, this essay is more a form of activist anthropology of nostalgia than just an outcome of a research. Svetlana Boym wrote about a type of nostalgia that can be prospective. It is the result of fantasies of the past that determine the needs of the present. Nostalgia for the neighborhood workers’ stadiums does not come only from a sentimentality about the past of those who spent their childhood and youth in their proximity. Ultimately, they had free access to public infrastructure that they could use to play sports, sit around and chat, or simply kill time without much effort. Today’s Bucharest residents have the shopping centers, fenced sports fields, and meager public spaces increasingly encroached upon by cars. Our sociability depends almost entirely on what we afford to consume, including in terms of sports, and the future looks even worse.
Getting to know the “suffering” of those he met on the football pitch helped Sócrates to understand the importance of having the voice of these people heard on an equal footing with that of the more privileged members of Brazilian society. He used his social position to impose the Corinthian democracy as the principle of organization at his football club, Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, where issues were discussed together, and each person had an equal vote in settling them. This system could be an inspiration for the kind of repairing that our society needs, and public spaces are essential to creating a new form of mutual understanding. The future of nostalgia could start right on the football pitch.
TRANSLATED FROM ROMANIAN BY IOANA MIRUNA VOICULESCU
 Julian Shea, “The Wisdom of Socrates,” BBC Sport, (July 21), accessed January 19, 2023, http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/8840141.stm.
 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books, 2001).