Given that only four European countries participated at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, one could be forgiven for being a little surprised that Romania were among the nations represented at the tournament. Romania’s national team only played their first international match in 1922 and only 3 of their players at the 1930 World Cup had more than 5 caps for their country. There is essentially only one reason Romania featured in Uruguay, and that is King Carol II. Nicknamed the ‘Playboy King’, Carol II was a huge football fan, but he only took the thrown 35 days before the World Cup was scheduled to begin. The football-mad monarch would not let that deter him though, and he managed to secure Romania a place at the tournament just three days prior to Fifa’s deadline. The Playboy King took his involvement further, playing a major role in persuading Yugoslavia to travel to Uruguay also, as well as actually picking and assembling Romania’s squad.
Carol II of Romania is best known for his various lifestyle choices, being renowned for his partying, drinking and particularly his sexual promiscuity, lending to the nickname the ‘Playboy Prince’, which later became the ‘Playboy King’. Carol II was largely raised by his great-uncle Carol I, who was without child and able to raise him due to the ongoing conflict between Carol II’s parents, Marie and Ferdinand. Marie was known for cuckolding Ferdinand and having regular affairs with Romanian men. Her increasingly ‘liberal’ and ‘new woman’ morality appeared to filter down to Carol II. By the age of 19 he had already illegitimately fathered two children with a teenage schoolgirl.
There was rarely a dull moment with Carol II, and he was always a highly controversial figure, even becoming a deserter at one time having left his post in the army without permission, and having one of his marriages annulled. Having left Romania for Paris, Carol II returned in a coup d’etat on June 7th 1930, and was proclaimed king the following day. Historians have described Carol’s rule as “reckless”, and his first act as king was an unusual one. He made it his mission to get Romania to Uruguay for the inaugural World Cup which was just a month away. It soon became clear the newly-crowned Playboy King would pull no punches with this plan.
He granted amnesty to all footballers who were suspended for football related-offences. The major problem Carol faced however, was that more than half of his most talented players were employed by a single English oil company, and the firm informed their selected employees that should they board a ship heading for Uruguay, their jobs would no longer be there for them upon their return. New to autonomous rule but not to getting his own way, Carol was not prepared to let this stop him. He called the company and said, in no uncertain terms, that the players would not only be allowed to travel to Uruguay, but that they would be given paid leave, or else he would close them down. They duly obliged, and Carol’s outlandish plans seemed to be coming together.
Romania travelled to Uruguay on a luxurious Italian ocean liner, the SS Conte Verde, as did France, Belgium and Brazil. Former player Constantin Radulescu was nominally made coach of the team, but no one was in any doubt over who was really in charge of the Romanian national team, given that Carol II had picked the squad himself. Radulescu was given the role of carrying out fitness drills over the course of the 16 day journey from Genoa to Montevideo though. So immersed in the beautiful game was Carol that he essentially became a member of the Romania squad during these exercises, joining in with the 19-man squad in kickabouts and training exercises.
They arrived ready to take on Group 3 of the inaugural Fifa World Cup, in which they had been drawn alongside hosts and favourites Uruguay, and Peru. Their tournament opener came against Peru, in which Romania took the lead after only 50 seconds. This remains the ninth fastest goal to ever be scored in a World Cup. The Romanians tiring legs having travelled from Europe was equalled out by Peru’s Plácido Galindo receiving the first red card in World Cup history on 70 minutes. Despite being a man down, Peru levelled the scoring on 75 minutes, but Romania managed to find another gear late in the game, and goals in the 79th and 89th minutes gave them a 3-1 victory in their first World Cup clash. The game also set a record which stands to this day as the lowest crowd in World Cup history.
Next up for Romania were the winners of the last two Olympics, World Cup hosts and favourites Uruguay. It was always likely to be a game beyond the reach of this hastily assembled Romania squad, going toe-to-toe with the best in the world, this time in front of a packed and noisy home crowd of more than 70,000 at the Estadio Centenario. And so it proved. Uruguay were irresistible once more, running out 4-0 victors courtesy of 4 first half goals by La Celeste. There was no shame in this defeat, Uruguay would go on to clinch the 1930 World Cup, and saw off Yugoslavia by an even more emphatic scoreline of 6-1 in the semi-final.
King Carol II would go on to have a mixed legacy as a Romanian monarch. He was eventually hounded out of Romania in 1940 after 10 years of holding his post, when fascism in Romania began to rise. The nation’s fascist party and the Iron Guard, partly funded by the Nazi’s, eventually convinced many Romanians that Carol was a weak leader, dominated by his Jewish partner, as anti-Semitic sentiments began to rise in the country.
Almost a century on, Carol’s insistence on taking Romania to the World Cup and his passion for the game has certainly had a powerful legacy. Today, football is by far the most popular sport in a country of just shy of 20 million inhabitants. Romania reached the Quarter-Finals of the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000. Much of their love for the game and success in it can be attributed to one man. Carol II was forced to flee Romania in 1940, first heading to Mexico and then Brazil, before buying a villa and settling in Estoril, Portugal, where he died suddenly in 1953 at the age of 59 as the result of a heart attack. Buried in Lisbon, his remains were eventually moved to the Curtea de Arges monastery in Romania, where he lies alongside fellow former Romanian kings and queens.