The Eternal Derby sounds both heavenly and down to earth. A mortal competition with the possibility of producing a moment that lasts forever. Strangely enough, something like this occurred at an Eternal Derby (also known as the Romanian Derby) match between Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest in 1988. It turned out to be one of the more bizarre matches in the history of Eastern European football. A match that was by turns fantastical, depraved and totally ridiculous. It would offer proof of the old cliché that “the truth is stranger than fiction”. If a novel had been written with a plot based upon what happened at the match no one would have bothered to believe or read it. Officially, the match was played to decide the Romanian Cup champion. That result is still in doubt today because the match was never completed.
Occupying The Pitch – A Fight Beyond The Finish
The Romanian Army was flexing its muscle, not on the field of battle, but instead on the field of football. The Army sponsored Steaua Bucharest football team had come to dominate the Romanian national league during the latter half of the 1980’s. Their rise had come at the expense of Dinamo Bucharest, which enjoyed the Securitate’s (Romanian Secret Police) backing. The rivalry between the two sides was fierce. The stakes could not have been higher. For years, the Army felt that their power had been trumped by the Securitate. The Army had regained its footing, quite literally, by occupying top place on the pitch. In 1989, Dinamo had an excellent opportunity to steal a march on Steaua. The teams were almost evenly matched. The deciding factor in the final might well come down to a lucky bounce or chance mishap. What happened turned out to be just as unlikely as it was unbelievable.
This version of the Eternal Derby was hard fought and tense. Steaua looked to be on their way to another title after they scored the first and only goal of the first half. It came in the 27th minute when their star striker Gheorghe Hagi put them on the board. Dinamo was not able to breakthrough until late in the match. They tied the game with a goal in the 87th minute. It now looked like the match would be decided in extra time. The final seconds were ticking away in the 90th minute when Steaua striker Gavrilo Balint struck a perfect header. His shot was beyond the goalkeeper’s grasp, giving Steaua what looked to be the winning goal. Steaua’s celebration was abruptly terminated by a referee’s call that Balint had been offside. Steaua’s players were stunned and furious. There is a great amount of confusion over what happened next. Multiple witnesses report that Valentin Ceaucescu – the club’s general manager and the son of the Romanian Nicolae – signaled from his place in the stands for Steaua’s players to leave the field. To this day, Valentin denies that he gave any such signal. Whether he did so or not is beside the point because Steaua’s players did leave the field and refused to return.
A Flash From The Pants – Stop Them & Drop Them
If this turn of events was not sufficiently bizarre, Dinamo’s Ioan Andone dropped his shorts and proceeded to give a full frontal flash to Valentin, grabbing a certain organ then swinging it in one of the lewdest and crudest gestures ever seen on a football pitch. Andone’s act of frustration would net him a year-long suspension. At the same time, his action symbolized the lunacy of Romanian football, where politics and power trumped performance on the field. When Steaua failed to come back out and finish the match, the game was awarded to Dinamo. To the victor went the spoils, but only for one day. Less than twenty-four hours later, the government decided to change the result, likely at the behest of Valentin who persuaded his father to ensure Steaua’s ultimate success. This was not to be the final result.
Eighteen months after that contested Cup final, Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown. He and his wife Elena were lined up and shot after a hastily arranged show trial. Valentin might have joined his parents in front of a firing squad, but he was saved by one of Steaua’s players who hid him in their apartment. His managerial acumen, workaholic tendencies and preferential treatment towards the players had made him a beloved general manager and probably ended up saving his life. As for the winner of the 1988 Romanian Cup, Steaua returned the Cup to Dinamo, but refused to accept it. No winner has ever been declared. A blank space is all that can be found in the record books.
Bottoms Up – A Humbling Fall
Despite a nation beset by a tumultuous transition to democratic capitalism filled with chaos and corruption, Romanian football soared to its greatest heights internationally in the early 1990’s. The greatest player of that generation, Gheorghe Haji, an ethnic Macedonian, became known as the Maradona of the Carpathians. Haji had been one of Steaua’s key players in the late 1980’s. He was the first Romanian player to be seen cruising around Bucharest in a Mercedes. At one point, the enterprising Valentin attempted to trade Haji to the Italian club Juventus in return for funding that would result in Fiat building a car plant in Bucharest. Nicolae put a stop to this deal because it smacked of free market capitalism. Haji went on to spearhead the Romanian team in their upset of Argentina in the second round of the World Cup in 1994. Haji and Romanian soccer had come a long way to escape from the long, dark shadow of the fallen Ceaucescu regime.
Unlike Haji, Valentin Ceaucescu’s career headed in a very different direction after the fall of communism in Romania. He was arrested, but eventually released. Fortunately, Valentin had spent his earlier years focused on education rather than politics. This came in handy as he was able to transition into the life of a nuclear physics researcher at an institute in Bucharest. He now lives quite modestly off a pension he earned through his work. This is a far cry from the heady days when Valentin was managing one of the most powerful football clubs in Europe. The club ascended to the greatest of heights under his management before falling back to earth. His involvement with Steaua was the stuff of dreams, legends and nightmares. Never more so than in the 1988 Romanian Cup final against Dinamo. A match that redefined the meaning of Eternal Derby.