Twenty-seven years ago today, the longest domestic unbeaten run in European football came to an end – when Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest lost in their attempt to stretch their domestic undefeated streak to an incredible 105th league match.
To be so completely dominant is undoubtedly the mark of a special team, though the manner in which they lost – and the subsequent after-effects both on the club and on Romanian football itself – was almost as stunning as their winning sequence.
9 September 1989 is the story of Steaua Bucharest losing for the first time in three years. But it is also a story of a fierce sporting rivalry; of the last remnants of Eastern European footballing greatness; of whispered conspiracies; and of the beginning of the end for a repressive political regime.
Up stepped Alexanko, a highly experienced former Spanish international centre-back, to put Barcelona 1-0 up in the penalty shoot-out against Steaua in the 1986 European Cup final. The Romanian side had held out for a 0-0 draw through normal and extra time, but they were already on the ropes.
Alexanko struck firmly to his left, but his strike was met by the strong hands of Helmuth Duckadam. Angel Pedraza went lower to the same side but, again, his effort was saved by the goalkeeper. Next up was Pichi Alonso; a striker. Again, bottom left. Again, Duckadam saved.
Barcelona had missed all of their opening three penalties and, as Steaua started to convert theirs, a growing inevitability enveloped proceedings. The Catalan club’s fourth spot-kick was taken by winger Marcos, who, as if trying simply to lift the repetitiveness from the charade, went to his right. But Duckadam guessed correctly. All four of Barcelona’s penalties had been on target, but none had gone in. Duckadam was inspired, and a Romanian team were kings of Europe.
Founded in 1947, at the beginning of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Steaua were backed by the army. Neighbours Dinamo Bucharest, who were established one year later by the Internal Affairs Ministry, were funded by the secret police. The competition between the two teams came to dominate the Romanian football landscape, but Dinamo were often the victors.
Indeed, up until the mid-1980s, Steaua had just three league titles to their name, while their city rivals had 12. However, their fortunes were to change not long after Valentin Ceaucescu, son of the regime’s general secretary, Nicolae, was appointed to an administrative role within the club hierarchy in 1983. Over the following two years, several key players would join Steaua.
Centre-back Adrian Bumbescu from FC Olt and left-back Ilie Barbulescu from Petrolul augmented the defence, joining Duckadam, Stefan Iovan and elegant ball-playing sweeper Miodrag Belodedici.
In midfield, Laszlo Boloni was brought in from Targu Mures, while Lucian Balan arrived from Baia Mare. The most important additions came up front, however.
Marius Lacatus, an intelligent 19-year-old inside forward, arrived from Brasov. He would play behind Victor Piturca, a clinical 27-year-old finisher who had found form with Olt after spells at multiple lesser lights, including Criaova, Pandurii and Drobeta-Turnu Severin. The duo would go on to form a devastating attacking partnership.
The 1984/85 season saw Steaua add a fourth league title and a Romanian Cup to their trophy cabinet, which would soon grow exponentially in lustre. The following year they won a second successive domestic title while knocking out Vejle, Honved, Lahti and Anderlecht to reach the European Cup final, where they pulled off that stunning upset to defeat the mighty Barcelona.
Coach Emerich Jenei was the master tactician behind the achievement. He was methodical in his approach, as he recounted in an interview with UEFA, where he said: “I analysed opponents step by step; every short meeting was a step forward.”
Ultimately, however, Jenei would leave while the glow of European Cup success was still shining on him to take up the Romanian national team job. His replacement, Anghel Iordanescu, would ensure Steaua’s hegemony was extended. In this pursuit, he was boosted by the arrival of Gheorghe Hagi.
An attacking midfielder with a magical left foot, Hagi was known as the Maradona of the Carpathians. His addition not only bolstered Steaua’s ranks, but confirmed just how unshakeable their grip was on the domestic game.
Having scored 34 goals in 33 games in all competitions for Sportul, one of the better ‘outsiders’ in the Romanian Divizia A at the time, the previous term, Steaua decided he would come in handy for their upcoming European Super Cup clash with Dynamo Kiev in early 1987.
Without further ado, an arrangement was put in place that meant he could play for them in that one match. However, after Hagi thundered home a free-kick to win the game, Steaua weren’t so keen to return him to Sportul. So they didn’t, and Hagi went on to help secure a further three league titles and three cups.
It was only natural at a time of great political tension, with anger against the Ceaucescu regime rising, that Steaua – with their five straight league titles, three straight doubles and poaching top talent from their domestic rivals – became the subject of conspiracy theories regarding collusion and match-fixing. It was only their performances in continental competition that counted against such rumours, as they reached the European Cup semi-finals and final in 1988 and 89, respectively.
Steaua had, by this point, gone from the invincible to the seemingly immortal. In the league, they had dropped a mere 16 points out of a possible 204 over the previous three years. That meant three titles without one single defeat to offer even a dash of hope to the rest of Romanian football.
It was against this backdrop that Dinamo Bucharest fans made their way, probably more in fear than expectation, to their team’s clash with Steaua on 9 September 1989. Dinamo were without a win in the ‘Eternal Derby’ for over three years; trophyless for the same period; and having failed to win a league title since their loathed rivals took it from them in 1985.
Dorin Mateut calmed the fans on 15 minutes, bursting into Steaua’s box after a long ball and a flick-on to fire Dinamo into a 1-0 lead. The champions continued to do the attacking, but struggled to equalise. And, as their search for a goal grew more and more desperate, they began to open up. Daniel Timofte took advantage of the increasing space, hammering in a second for Dinamo as the unthinkable became possible. The attacking midfielder’s strike was celebrated by a pile-up involving the whole team. Then, with six minutes remaining, Cezar Zamfir, sent clear by a lofted ball, lobbed gracefully over Steaua keeper Silviu Lung to secure a 3-0 win.
Steaua’s unbeaten run was over, as was their domestic dominance as Dinamo beat them to the league title by a single point. As Steaua’s era came to an end, so too did the overarching regime’s. Months after that historic derby, Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena were shot by firing squad after being tried and convicted of genocide and sabotage of the national economy on 25 December 1989.
Romania’s football scene was altered, but the country as a whole was about to undergo more drastic change.