Steaua’s 1986 European Cup miracle would now be impossible
The ill-conceived idea of a European Super League may be dead – for now – but even without it, the prospect of a Central and Eastern European football team of winning the continent’s major trophy again is highly unlikely. Fortunately, we will always have Steaua Bucharest – the first team behind the Iron Curtain to win the European Cup, in 1986.
Romania in 1986 was the most repressive and the poorest of all the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. That its main football team, Steaua Bucharest, managed to overcome hardship and win that year’s European Cup remains one of football’s most enduring miracles.
Indeed, the achievement is perhaps even more remarkable today, 35 years later, especially in the context of the ill-fated European Super League.
Announced – without much fanfare and with little formal idea of how it actually worked – on April 18, it collapsed two days later, before a ball was kicked, when Chelsea backed away, frightened by the negative reaction from his supporters.
Manchester City quickly followed suit, and within hours the six English clubs that had signed up for the project had all signaled their intention to withdraw.
The so-called European Super League was a ill-considered attempt by 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs – all from Western Europe – to create their own sold-out tournament that would freeze small teams forever – like the Steaua Bucharest -.
Another point is that Steaua – or any other Central and Eastern European team – is unlikely to win the European Cup again, or the Champions League as it’s now called. They can at least dream: football, in Europe at least, prides itself on being a meritocracy, where even the smallest camps have a theoretical chance of reaching the top of the pyramid, albeit a pyramid deformed by the vast riches. which fund the main clubs on the continent.
But hasn’t football always been like this?
The biggest clubs have always known how to buy the best players and pay them the highest salaries. Things were no different when Steaua won the European Cup in 1986.
However, there were subtle differences. For starters, there was a lot less money in the game than today, which means that the difference in financial weight between the richest and the poorest was much less acute.
There were also limits on the number of foreign players teams could sign. In the case of almost all Central and Eastern European countries, a sort of reverse was true: gamers were generally not allowed to move abroad until they were in their 30s and 12s. exceed their best.
Either way, Steaua had nothing to do with the financial might of the main European clubs of the time, of which Barcelona, whom they would beat in the final, was not the least.
But that also shouldn’t suggest that the Steaua was entirely devoid of resources.
Administratively a unit of the Romanian army, the Steaua could recruit young players with the promise that their two years of compulsory military service would be spent playing football, without participating in endless and unnecessary exercises in remote areas of the country.
The possibility of traveling abroad was also interesting. The modest hard currency allowances paid to players on their short trips to international meetings would be spent on consumer goods almost impossible to find in Romania, such as stereos and VCRs, either as gifts for friends and family. family or for sale on the black market. .
Steaua’s success must also be seen in the context of Romanian football in the 1980s, as they staged a virtual duopoly with Dinamo Bucharest. Steaua, however, played a very important role after Dinamo – backed by the Home Office – at the start of the decade. When Steaua won the Romanian league in 1985, it was the club’s first title since 1978.
Dinamo reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1984, losing more than two matches to Liverpool, on the verge of winning their fourth European Cup in eight years. Had Dinamo not hit the post However, in the first leg at Anfield (when the score was 0-0) everything could have been very different.
What is widely considered to have changed the fortunes of Steaua is the co-option of Valentin Ceaușescu – the eldest son of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – as chief executive in 1983.
Ceaușescu’s patronage made the Steaua immune to the often underhanded tactics the Home Office routinely employed to bait its rival.
These tactics were not limited to the appointment of referees friendly to Dinamo. Customs officials at Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport (Interior Ministry employees) would subject the luggage of Steaua players – returning from matches in Western Europe – to rigorous checks and confiscate contraband goods. One of the first actions of Valentin Ceaușescu as general manager was to end the practice.
The road to Seville
Steaua’s title victory in 1985 offered the club a chance to compete in the European Cup. That year’s competition was played without English teams (who had won seven of the previous nine tournaments) – banned following the Heysel disaster. Barcelona, Juventus – 1985 winners – and Bayern Munich started off as favorites.
Steaua’s campaign got off to a good start with a 5-2 overall victory over Danish champion Velje.
In the second round, they faced Honved, losing the first leg of the draw 1-0 in Budapest. In the comeback, however, Steaua scored four points and ultimately prevailed 4-2 on aggregate.
The quarter-final, against the Finnish Kuusysi Lahti, was to be a formality. It was anything but: Steaua were mediocre in the first game, a goalless draw in Bucharest, and needed an 86th-minute winner from striker Victor Pițurcă two weeks later in Helsinki to progress.
In the semifinals, Anderlecht of Belgium were formidable opponents. The Brussels team had beaten Bayern Munich in the previous round and were considered the favorites. A goal from Enzo Scifo won the Belgian side in the first leg but was swept away in Bucharest as Steaua scored three times unanswered.
This second leg performance against Anderlecht is widely regarded as the best of the Steaua tournament, eclipsing – with style if not substance – the final.
It was played in Seville on May 7, 1986 – in front of a crowd made up almost entirely of Barcelona fans. Only a handful of carefully screened Romanians were allowed to travel (even so, a third of the 50 who made the trip did not return). Back home, the Romanians did not know until the last minute whether the game would be broadcast live on television – it was.
A drab and goalless draw, the match is often considered one of the worst finals in the long and distinguished history of the European Cup. However, while it could be, it was also in his time, when caution and fear of losing prevailed throughout European football. Few of the European Cup finals of this era are memorable for the quality of the football on display.
After 120 minutes of negative and tedious football, the game was finally decided by a penalty shootout.
The first four shots on goal – two for Barcelona, two for Steaua – were as poor as the game itself and were saved by goalkeepers Helmuth Duckadam of Steaua and Francisco Urruticoechea of Barcelona.
Marius Lăcătuș and Gabriel Balint then scored for Steaua, while Barcelona continued to miss. When Duckadam saved Barcelona’s fourth penalty, taken by Marcos Alonso (whose son of the same name now plays for Chelsea), Steaua had won. Duckadam remains the only goalkeeper in history to save four shots on goal in a shootout.
Hundreds of supporters greeted the team as they landed in Otopeni, and thousands more lined the streets as the team’s bus headed for Bucharest – in a country unaccustomed to rallies spontaneous of any size. Indeed, they were banned.
“A revolution could have happened that night,” recalls one supporter, Dan Ionescu, a retired engineer. “But we were too happy to worry about this stuff.”
For their efforts, the Steaua players each received a taxable bonus of 1,500 lei and permission to skip the queue for an ARO jeep (but not the jeep itself: at the time, a ticket for the front of the queue was more valuable than the vehicle itself).
Still under the patronage of Valentin Ceaușescu, Steaua again reached the European Cup final in 1989, when it was this time. deeply beaten by Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan – again, perhaps, the best football team in history. While Milan’s superiority (they had beaten Real Madrid 5-0 in the semi-finals) meant they would have won anyway, in European Champions, a history of the European Cup (now sadly out of print), which most learned football writer Brian Glanville alludes to “endless rumors” about what he calls the “passivity” of the Steaua players that night.
Too passive or not, it will be the swan song of Romanian club football in Europe. Following the revolution of December 1989, Romanian players were free to play abroad and the national game lost its prestige: it never recovered. Steaua’s run to the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 2005 (where they lost to less-than-powerful Middlesbrough) was a bit of a mirage.
The Steaua is now practicing its profession in the third row of Romania, the result of a long and bitter dispute between the Romanian army and George Becali, a controversial businessman, sometimes politician and convicted (he served a sentence prison for corruption).
Becali had invested in Steaua since the mid-1990s and eventually managed to separate the club from the Romanian military. However, in December 2014, following legal action brought by the military, the Becali-backed club lost its right to use the “Steaua” brand: it is now known as FCSB. He nevertheless retained his place in the Romanian first division. Ownership of historic titles – including the 1986 European Cup – is still in dispute.
The Steaua – which is again part of the Romanian army sports club – has started again, at the bottom of the pyramid. The collapse of the European Super League means they can at least dream of reaching the top again, unlikely as that may be.
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