TV has made the world smaller, especially where football is concerned. Nowadays you can watch games from around the world either online or on digital television. But there was a time when teams and players had a certain mystique, they were names that you knew but with faces you had never seen. Steaua Bucharest fall into that category, shock winners of the 1986 European Cup thanks to the penalty shoot-out heroics of their goalkeeper.
Helmuth Duckadam is a giant of a man with hands that could crush a pineapple. And I’ve angered him. “Why do you say it was a huge shock?” he growls. “It wasn’t. Steaua had an excellent team in those years, and we dominated Europe for five years, playing in another final and a semi-final.” I decline to point out that it was Steaua’s first involvement in the top competition for six years. You don’t antagonise European football royalty.
In 1986, Steaua benefitted from the involvement of Valentin Ceausescu, son of the Romanian president Nicolae. Though he was technically only at the club as an advisor, being the son of your country’s brutal dictator certainly had its perks, though Valentin was certainly seen as something of an outcast within the family and his involvement with Steaua caused friction. Under his gaze, Steaua went on an implausible 119 game unbeaten run, scored a fair number of injury-time goals and generally riled all those they faced. All of Romania however was behind them as they headed out to Spain for a date with Terry Venables’ Barcelona.
Steaua faced Barca as underdogs, but resisted all that was thrown at them as the Catalans went in search of their first European Cup. When the game went to penalties after 120 goalless minutes, Duckadam miraculously saved all four Barcelona spot-kicks to seal Steaua’s title in front of 70,000 fans, though only 1000 vetted Romanians travelled to Seville (with around 50 defecting after the game.)
It remains Romania’s greatest sporting moment, though the club that brought glory to eastern Europe is now in turmoil and Duckadam isn’t happy. He is now the honourary president of Steaua and his club is involved in a legal battle as to who actually owns the club. “This isn’t the army’s club, this is Romania’s team,” he tells me. “It lacks common sense for someone from the army to ask for this team’s relegation and to destroy it.”
The army? Yes, that’s right. Steaua historically was the army’s team, but they became a public entity in 2003 and were bought by property developer Gigi Becali. A whole book could be devoted to Becali, one of Europe’s most controversial owners. He only left prison as recently as May, attempted to bribe Universitatea Cluj players to beat Steaua’s title rivals CFR Cluj and caused has controversy with his prehistoric views on sexuality. He has been battling the army for the ‘Steaua’ name since 2011.
The supreme court in Romania decided that when Becali registered the Steaua brand one year after his 2003 takeover, he had done so illegally as he didn’t actually posses any papers to prove his registration took place. For a short time, they had to remove the Steaua badge, colours and name from all the club’s possessions; they lined up for their next game as simply ‘Hosts’ and were forced to leave their historic Ghencea stadium, which was handed over to the Ministry of Defence. The army claimed the Steaua ‘brand’ was theirs and they planned to sell it to the highest bidder. Becali claimed his ownership was valid and the army had no right to ‘take’ it. “I think this is the ambition of one man, a powerful man, who doesn’t like Becali and wants to break up his team,” states Duckadam. “What bothers is me is that those who lead Romania refuse to do anything.”
Becali soon started to pay for use of ‘Steaua’ while he continues to fight the case at court, claiming he is paying €60,000 for the privilege, yet when I ask if it’s a fair price, the former keeper questions the logic. “I don’t know, who evaluated the brand?” he asks. “Let’s say if Barcelona didn’t have a team, the brand, the history wouldn’t matter, so how can you have a brand without a team?” It’s certainly a fair point, and the Romanians I spoke to felt the ministry of defence had more important things to spend money on than chasing a football club through court.
Duckadam believes Becali is Romania’s last hope on the domestic front. “The last one (hope) is Gigi, and if he’s gone, Romania should forget about success in Europe,” Becali himself is becoming more irate: he announced last week that he will take Ghencea’s seats and lights because he paid for them when Steaua played there, but there is little sign of the deadlock in the courtroom being broken. Failure to make even the group stages of the Champions League was a hammer blow financially (“We missed a big chance.” admits Duckadam) and the team is struggling domestically to retain their title, sitting six points behind leaders Astra, though the president told me the off-field issues have nothing to do with it. “Our problem with the army is strictly a management issue, the players don’t feel any pressure, they have a contract.”
Though fans of Nottingham Forest and debt-ridden Red Star Belgrade could make a strong case, it’s doubtful any former European Cup winners have fallen so low; on paper Steaua could cease to exist next season, with Becali’s team starting in the top-flight with a new name/badge etc, whille the army’s team start in the lower leagues or not at all should they decide against starting that low down. Duckadam’s heroics made him a national hero. Now he’s facing an even bigger challenge along with Becali to save Steaua’s future.
With thanks to Catalin Andrei for translation.
You can follow Charles Ducksbury on Twitter (@CDucksbury)