In between Christmas 2011 and Epiphany 2012, the Romanian Public Television (TVR) brought us a gift, an occasional celebration of handball history. Here’s a short (but robust) interview with Ştefan Birtalan (top scorer of the 1974 WCh), Elena Frâncu (world medallist), Mariana Tarca (trainer of Corona Brasov) and Vasile Stângă (olympic medallist)*:
Interviewer 1: Handball is the Romanian team sport with the highest number of titles. The male team won 4 world titles, the female team – 3.
Interviewer 2: Moreover, we have thaught handball to others who are now defeating us. We have problems concerning the men’s team, things may be brighter if we talk about the girls. Mrs. Francu, at that time, was handball played with the heart and soul?
E. Francu: (season greetings) I am just a world silver medallist, in 1973, member of a golden generation, that supports the vice-world champions of today (reference to the 2005 Romanian team), fighting for a podium in Brazil (Romania played against Croatia on that very night).
Interviewer: How motivating were the results of the men’s team for you?
E. Francu: We, girls, were always inspired by the boys. (greetings and acknowledgements)
Interviewer: Thank you! You had the chance to be part of a great generation, a chance that I would have wished for Mariana Tarca, for her heart and talent. Mariana, if you have had a team as strong behind you, would we have talked to a world or olympic medallist today? You won the Champions League. The Romanian National Team was going through a generation change at that point, was that the cause of its failure to medal?
M. Tarca: This was the unfulfillment of my career, BUT, I can’t complain about my generation not having been exceptional. Maybe the other strong nations had better teams than we did. I am certain I had outstanding colleagues, very talented, with whom I managed to obtain success abroad, at club level. However, this also brings great satisfaction.
C. Topescu (retired legendary commentator): I would like to add that Elena Francu was the most beautiful girl in our team. Too bad I was already married at the time!
Interviewer: Mr. Birtalan has good reasons to smile. He is the player with the highest number of medals in the sport. I have an idealistic question: when will we have another player with your record?
S. Birtalan: (greetings) We have to insist on one aspect: I was part of a sensational team: behind me, by me, in front of me, there are 70 world champions. From 1961 to 1974, the four gold medals in handball were brought by a generation of 70 champions. I am glad I could contribute to this wider context.
Interviewer: C. Gatu is now the head of the federation. Who was the boss on court back then? I heard he was a very restless person.
S. Birtalan: Him too, but we were a good team outside the court also. We did not care from which team we came.
Interviewer: I know a story: once, during a game, a ball didn’t reach him when it should have and afterwards, he almost flung himself at you.
S. Birtalan: Of course, not only once! But he had small chances!
Interviewer: You were out of his reach …
S. Birtalan: We respected each other, we were open with each other and we are still friends today.
C. Topescu (retired legendary commentator): The 1974 team was multinational: S. Birtalan (nickname Bibi) and Gabriel Kicsid had Hungarian origins, Roland Gunesch and Werner Stockl – German, Cristi Gatu – Macedonian. They all got along so well! And the image of the Romanian flag in the hall, in Berlin, remains! Gold medal against the host team.
Interviewer: You grew up with these performances, Mr. Stanga. Your jump is unforgettable.
V. Stanga: Yes, it’s true. Maybe after seeing the 1970 final, from Paris, and this 1974 final, I made idols for myself, great players, Gruia, Birtalan, Gatu, Penu. The viewers still recall my jump because it was a native attribute. Today, I can’t jump like that anymore…
Interviewer: Yes, but you have taken on a difficult job: to bring back the team among the world’s best.
V. Stanga: Unfortunately, we are few former handball players to have become trainers. Maybe this is why I returned to coaching. We are trying, but it is a very difficult task indeed.
C. Topescu (retired legendary commentator): In 1980, at the Olympic Games in Moscow, URSS vs. Romania. The Soviets were leading by 6 goals at half time. Our team, coached by Nicolae Nedef and Lascar Pana, won the game by a 3-goal margin. A friend of mine from Drumul Taberei (a neighbourhood of Bucharest) told me that after the game, there was such a joy that people went to their balconies with flags, shouting: “We have defeated the Russians! We have defeated the Russians!”. It is something harder to achieve today.
V. Stanga: We did defeat them again, the surprise of the Qualification. Me too, I had a good generation, 1980-1990, who missed the olympic gold medal in Los Angeles and Moscow (only bronze then). But, that was a matter of chance.
Interviewer: The future of The Women’s Team could be related to Mariana’s daughter. I have heard she is very good.
M. Tarca: She is my greatest accomplishment. I want her to follow my steps. I can see her talent, I wish her to surpass me and attain the success I did not have.
Cristian Topescu: (on Stanga’s family – not very interesting)
D. Graur (president of AP Sports in Romania): There’s an anecdote that I would like Birtalan to confirm. The coaches of the team, such as Nicu Nedef, used to group one experienced player with one young player and thus, Birtalan ended up in Gruia’s room, the great George Gruia, the top scorer. They were all youg and made “mistakes”, the trainings were long and once, Gruia and some friends jumped out the window and disappeared at night. Young Birtalan stayed home, quiet, went to bed early. Gruia and the others returned late, in the morning, they hardly got any sleep, they had a game in which Gruia played extraordinary, destroyed the opponent. And Birtalan who confirms today, said to himself: “I must give up handball. I have no chance, if he can do this… how can I?”.
*Translation to the best of my ability