The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)

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.

Unclaimed - The Romanian Cup Trophy

Unclaimed – The Romanian Cup Trophy

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.

The Moment of Decision - Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

The Moment of Decision – Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

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.

Then & Now - Valentin Ceaucescu

Then & Now – Valentin Ceaucescu

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.

Click here for: A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

Romania is not a country that immediately comes to mind when discussing European countries which from time to time have managed to meet with greater than expected success on the football pitch. Judging by the more recent results of the national team it is little wonder that few remember the glory days of Romanian football in the 1980’s and 90’s. Since that time, Romania has largely failed to impress on world football’s biggest stages. That has been especially true of late. Though they qualified for the 2016 European Championships, the Romanians subsequently finished last in their group, losing in ignominious fashion to that footballing featherweight, Albania, in their final match. They then failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This underwhelming performance resulted in the firing of the head coach. Another attempt is now underway to resurrect the national team’s lost glory.  Currently, Romania is ranked 35th in the latest FIFA World Rankings. That low ranking is a far cry from the halcyon days of Romanian football that began in the mid-1980s and peaked in the early 1990’s when they reached a ranking of fifth in the world and made the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup.

In an ironic twist of fate, this period of football glory took place while at the same time the country was suffering grave damage due first to the megalomaniacal excesses of the Ceaucescu regime and then the whirlwind of tumult which followed the nation’s transition to democratic capitalism. The brilliance of Romanian football during this era is most famously represented by Steaua Bucharest’s victorious run to the European Cup Championship in 1986. Conversely, one of Romanian football’s lowest points would take place only a couple of years later, when an even more improbable turn of events occurred. This happened in what is known as the Eternal Derby, annual matches between Steaua and Dinamo. The 1988 battle of Bucharest heavyweights is now counted among the most infamous in footballing history. That match is worth recalling because it symbolizes just how bizarre Romanian football had become. In that respect, it was not much different from the national political scene.

European Cup Champions 1986 - Steaua Bucharest

European Cup Champions 1986 – Steaua Bucharest

Rise Of A Footballing Dynamo – Kicking Butt
Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of modern Eastern European history knows the name of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the dictatorial leader of Romania from 1965- 1989, Ceaucescu’s communist regime put an indelibly hideous imprint on the country. Centralization and industrialization occurred at breakneck speed, while the security police arrested tens of thousands and spied on millions more. It is believed that by the 1980’s one in three Romanians was an informer for the secret police. This was a society where paranoia ruled. At its head was Ceaucescu, the prototype of a venal dictator, out of touch with those he ruled and just as out of touch with reality. He spent wildly on megalomaniacal monstrosities while his own citizens went half-starved and suffered through winters where the heat was turned off rather than up. Romania was an unfathomable dystopia for those who lived there in the 1980’s.

With such a monumental level of dysfunction, it is hard to believe that this same system could produce the greatest footballing teams in the nation’s history. One of which rose to a level of European preeminence that had never been attained by a football club in Romania or Eastern Europe for that matter. During the 1980’s the name Ceaucescu was not so much feared, as beloved in some Romanian footballing circles. That was if you happened to be a fan of Steaua Bucharest, the traditional club of the army. While Nicolae cared little for the game, his son Valentin was obsessed with it. Valentin was a nuclear physicist by education, but a football administrator extraordinaire. In 1983 Valentin Ceaucescu was appointed general manager of Steaua, thus inaugurating the team’s meteoric rise to the top of Romanian football. At that time, the national league was dominated by Dinamo Bucharest, which won three consecutive league titles from 1982 through 1984. Dinamo was sponsored by the powerful Securitate, the nation’s all powerful internal security service. The dominance of Dinamo was said by many to be symbolic of their grip on the nation. The army’s power paled in comparison or so it was thought.

In The Name Of The Father - Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

In The Name Of The Father – Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

Foot Soldiers – A Pitched Battle In Bucharest
The Securitate ensured that Dynamo had access to the best resources and top players throughout the country. This began to change when Valentin Ceaucescu took the helm at Steaua. The club had not won a league championship since 1977, but with Valentin playing the role of patron in chief that was about to change. Steaua was backed by the army, the only institution in Romania which could hope to compete with the Securitate for power and prestige. Valentin’s managerial style was more that of a company executive than a communist apparatchik. He worked day and night to bring the best footballers to the Steaua side. His efforts paid immediate, as well as lasting dividends. Steaua won five consecutive league championships beginning with the 1984-85 season. This period included a remarkable 104 game winning streak by Steaua. Their success was not limited to the Romanian national league either.

In 1986, Steaua made an unprecedented run to the European Cup championship, defeating Barcelona on penalty kicks in the final played before 70,000 Spaniards in Seville. This was a monumental upset. Steaua was the first Eastern European side to excel at the highest level of club competition. Steaua’s success came at the expense of Dynamo, which chafed at the rise of its bitter rival. The Securitate attempted to harass Steaua’s players and even went so far as to place Valentin under surveillance. Such measures did little to change the outcome of matches. The Securitate and Army had long been rivals off the field, but the rancor soon rose to a fever pitch on it as well. Their football matches became a proxy for the power struggle between the security services and armed forces. The rivalry reached a new level of rancor when the two teams faced off in the 1988 league final. An epic match ensued, memorable for all the wrong reasons. A match that few who were in the stadium that day would ever forget.

Click here for: The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)