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.
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.
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.