The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

It’s a little known fact that the UEFA Champions League – the height of football capitalism – was borne from the collapse of communism on the continent.

When the former USSR disbanded in 1991, the Soviet Union granted independence to it’s associated states meaning the former European Cup had to accommodate another 14 national champions into its ranks. The rest, they say, is history.

As Moscow desperately clung to power at the end of the 80’s, it’s closest communist ally was in the throws of a bloody revolution. In December 1989 a populist uprising around Romania led to it’s people forcibly overthrowing the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.

On Christmas Day, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a brief military tribunal. Ceausescu’s grizzly demise came just six months after his favourite football team, Steaua Bucharest, contested the 1988/89 European Cup final.

The Militarii – a monicker derived from Steaua’s close links with the nation’s army – were well beaten 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s all conquering AC Milan side. Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten scored two a piece as the Iron Curtain drew on Ceausescu and Steaua’s stranglehold on political and sporting domination in Romania.

However, the landscape throughout much of the 80’s was very different. Steaua, along with great city rivals Dinamo had duopolised Romanian football since it’s re-inception after World War II. It was Dinamo under the umbrella of the Secret Police intelligencia who had the upper hand at the start of the decade winning a hat-trick of consecutive league titles whilst Steaua went six seasons stretching back to the late 70’s without.

Eager to redress the balance, in 1983 Ceausescu’s son Valentin was initiated into the Steaua set-up in some sort of nondescript administrative role. From then on the clubs fortunes changed and for the next six years Steaua topped Liga 1.

Like many aspects of life in the eastern bloc, an allure of secrecy and uncertainty shrouds events making differentials between fact and fiction hard to ascertain. Steaua’s detractors believe it is more than just a coincidence that the Militarii’s renaissance coincided with Ceausescu family involvement.

From June ‘86 to September ’89, Steaua went an improbable 119 domestic matches without defeat, setting a world record for that time and a European one which still stands. There were more than widespread rumours of collusion with officials and opposing teams who had the Ceausescu’s to answer to for failing to comply.

In a society where professionalism was outlawed by the governance, Steaua’s players were paid modestly according to communist grading. They were though heavily incentivised for good performances and rewarded with luxuries like television sets and video recorders not afforded to the rest of the citizenship.

Steaua also had a penchant for acquiring players from other clubs largely at will. In 1987 the legendary Gheorghe Hagi was borrowed from Sportul Studentesc to play for the Militarii in the European Super Cup against Dynamo Kiev. After scoring the only goal of the game, Hagi was permanently transferred to Steaua with Sportul presumably given little say-so over the matter.

Events such as those in the Romanian Cup final in 1988 also illustrate the dysfunctional nature of football under the dictatorship. Steaua striker Gavrila Balint struck for the Militarii a few minutes from time to send Emerich Jenei’s side into a 2-1 lead.

As Balint wheeled away, a raised linesman’s flag brought a halt to celebrations as the goal was disallowed. Outraged, Valentin Ceausescu hauled his side off the field leaving the Dinamo players stood standing. With Steaua refusing to return, the referee abandoned the game and Dinamo were declared victors.

But the record books suggest otherwise. According to some truth’s, hole’s in the truth and nothing like the truth, the opposing factions come to differing conclusions as to how Steaua eventually ended up with the trophy.

Dinamo’s coach of the time and current Shakhtar Donetsk boss Mircea Lucescu tells a tale of Ceausescu’s generals confiscating the cup from Dinamo the day after the final and presenting it to Steaua. The story from the other side of the fence greatly differs, and according to Steaua accounts, Dinamo relinquished the cup themselves. Like many aspects of the game during that era, what actually happened will never fully emerge.

If Steaua’s successes during the mid to late 80‘s weren’t totally within the laws and ethics of association football, then such alleged dishonorable conduct is still perhaps a disservice to what must arguably be the best club side Romania have ever produced.

Elegant sweeper Miodrag Belodedici marshaled things from the back, whilst the metronomic passing of Laszlo Boloni kept things ticking over in midfield. The aces in the pack were the forward combination of the prolific Victor Piturca and the mercurial Marius Lacatus.

Regardless of their sphere’s of influence at home, Jenei’s men became the first eastern bloc country to lift the European Cup and still remain one of only two sides to do so until Red Star Belgrade in 1991.

After Steaua ended a six year title drought in 1984/85 they entered the continent’s premier club competition along with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, Johann Cruyff’s Ajax, Terry Venables’s Barcelona and the Michel Platini inspired holders Juventus. Incidentally Everton were unable to participate following the ban on English clubs entering European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster.

In an interesting subtext to Steaua’s run, it’s worth comparing the relative strength of the European Cup in both its past and present guises. The first round of 32 clubs kicked off in mid-September and featured powerhouses such as the mighty IA from Iceland, Rabat Ajax from Malta, Linfield, Shamrock Rovers, Cypriots Omonia Nicosia and esteemed champions of Luxembourg – Jeunesse Esch.

From first round to the final, teams had to play a maximum of nine games. In the unlikely event that a first round qualifier would get anywhere near the Champions League final in the current climate, they would have to embark on an arduous ten month escapade encompassing 21 ties.

With no seedings in place, the relatively useful Porto were eliminated in the first round by Ajax and Sparta Prague were put out by Barcelona. Our Romanian friends were sent on a visit to Denmark to face Allan Simonsen’s now defunct Vejle Boldklub. Steaua escaped with a 1-1 draw thanks to a last minute Marin Radu equaliser and in what proved to be a familiar pattern, relied on home form to carry them forward with a 4-1 win.

Steaua’s five ties on their travels produced just one win and only two goals. Matches at their own Ghencea Stadium were a different matter with Steaua winning three of their four home games scoring eleven goals. With movement and information in and out of Romanian territory heavily monitored by the narcissistic government, there were no intrinsic dossiers on opposition players or tactics for either side to mull over and prepare. Essentially, Steaua and their opponents squared up like strangers in a saloon.

It was more of the same in the next round. A 1-0 first leg defeat away to Budapest Honved was re-written with another 4-1 home win and all of a sudden the Militarii found themselves in a quarter final with Finland’s finest Kuusysi Lahti. The Finn’s held on for a goalless draw at then Ghencea and a solitary Piturca strike saw Steaua progress once again.

Another first leg reverse was overturned in the semi-final, with Anderlecht succumbing 3-0 at the Ghencea after taking a 1-0 lead to Bucharest. And so onto the final against El Tel and Steve Archibald’s Barcelona.

The showpiece was staged 500 miles away from Barcelona in Seville and the Catalan support dwarfed that of the few visiting Romanians. Only 200 vetted communist party members and officials were allowed to travel to see a turgid affair in which Jenei’s side – unsurprisingly given the circumstances – clung to what they had and spoilt the game into penalties.

The pressure of being big pre-match favourites in their own country got to Barca who completely bottled the shoot-out. Four very saveable spot-kicks were obligingly rebuffed by Steaua keeper Helmuth Duckadam and with Lacatus and Balint converting, the Romanians made history by becoming the first club from the east of the continent to hoist the European Cup.

The team were granted a hero’s welcome upon their return to the motherland but in another bizarre anecdote to the tale, the hero of the piece Duckadam went missing soon after the final – presumed dead. Folklore suggests he was executed by Ceausescu’s heavies after the dictator became jealous of Duckadam’s new found fame and popularity. He eventually resurfaced five years later with his whereabouts largely unexplained and he now holds the position of Steaua president after serving a spell as a major with the Romanian border police.

Following Ceausescu’s overthrow in December ’89 Steaua relinquished the league title for the next three seasons, further adding to the notion that political facets aided their success. However, the talents of the team were regularly demonstrated in the European Cup as they reached the semi’s of the competition in 1987/88 and another final the following year.

But the generation had come to an abrupt end. As was the case in many former communist and eastern bloc countries, the integration of free trade and commercial enterprise had a devastating effect on domestic football. The regimes could no longer prevent players from seeking the riches the west had to offer and mass emigration created a vacuum of talent and a void of truly great sides from out that way.

Whether you agree or disagree about the merits of the modern day European Cup, there is no doubt it lacks the mystique and nostalgia of these delphic sides that came from nowhere to conquer.

Follow John Baines on twitter @bainesyDiego10

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