In today’s game, it is usually only a handful of clubs within Europe who claim the title of champions in the most prestigious club competition there is to win, the Champions League. Significant funds, due to commercial revenue, have resulted in a seismic schism between the elite clubs and those trying to get to the next level in the hopes of claiming such a prestigious prize.
This financial pyramid that has formed has seen the days of every club having a fair shot at winning the competition become a distant memory. However, in 1986, there was one club that defied the odds and achieved one of the greatest underdog stories in world football. This club was Steaua Bucharest and this is the story of how they reached the pinnacle of European club football.
The Lay of the Land & The Heysel Disaster
Going into the 1986 European cup, or the European Champion Clubs’ Cup as it was known then, UEFA implemented a rule which saw English clubs banned from taking part in any continental competition for five years. This expulsion came as a result of events that transpired in the final of the previous year between Liverpool and Juventus, at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
In what has gone on to be known as the Heysel disaster, Liverpool and Juventus fans clashed approximately an hour before kick-off, after Liverpool fans breached one of the chicken wire barriers and stormed toward the opposing fans. This surge of fans from one section of the ground into another resulted in many Juventus fans and neutrals being pressed against a collapsing wall in the stadium.
As a result of this clash, 39 people, most of which were Juventus fans and neutrals, died, with a further 600 injured. This ban from all continental competitions for English clubs meant that the reigning English champions, Everton, would miss their opportunity at European success.
With the country that had produced seven of the previous nine European champions now banned for five years, as a consequence of these events, the door was now open for many other clubs in the competition to have an opportunity to reach cup success.
Despite being seen by many in Europe as an underdog when it came to continental competitions, Steaua Bucharest (Steaua București) were a force to be reckoned with in their native Romania. Under head coach, Emerich Jenei, a former Bucharest player in his day, the team had a style of play that was easy on the eye and saw them go unbeaten since Jenei’s return to the dugout in 1983.
In his previous stint as head coach of Steaua Bucharest from 1975-78, Jenei led the club to two championships, a feat he later matched in his first two seasons back at the club, winning back to back titles. Bucharest’s predominant use of one touch football in their play earned them the nickname ‘The Speedies’, a philosophy Jenei explained further in an interview he did with UEFA to mark the 30th anniversary of Bucharest’s European success:
“In training, we did one-touch football. Only when the boys lost their focus, because it is very difficult to keep that up, did I accept two – touch football.”
Known by many to be a tactical genius and student of the game, Jenei was obsessed with analysing the opposition to find weaknesses, but at the same time knew how to get the best out of his own players with his man-management style. Jenei described this further in the same interview:
” I preferred to analyse opponents step by step; every short meeting was a step forward. I did not hold endless team meetings before matches, because long meetings drain players’ concentration.”
The Romanian coach’s meticulous approach meant no stone was left unturned as he prepared his team for a match, so much so that he named his starting eleven three days before a game. This simple, yet effective, approach was seen as a way to eradicate any tension in his players so they could focus on the game.
The Road to Seville begins
On September 18th 1985, Steaua Bucharest began their campaign against the Danish side Vejle. A 1-1 draw in Scandinavia was followed by a 4-1 victory in Bucharest, in the return fixture, with goals from Victor Piţurcă, László Bölöni, Gabi Balint and Tudorel Stoica sealing Bucharest’s place in the second round. This result made many fans believe that their sides’ tenure in the competition was not going to be short lived.
Still, despite a convincing start, Steaua were seen as outsiders for the trophy and this was not due to the talent in their squad, but instead the lack of financial muscle they had compared to Europe’s top clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. However, Steaua’s history of being a branch of the Romanian army’s sports club, CSA Steaua București, since its founding in 1947 meant they had the access to sign the best young players with the promise that their 2 years of compulsory service was to be spent playing football.
Following the victory over Vejle, the Hungarian champions Honvéd awaited Jenei’s men in the next round. A 1-0 loss in Budapest was not the start the Romanian side wanted but, again, Bucharest dismantled their opponents on home soil with a 4-1 victory.
In what was expected to be a formality of a quarter-final against FC Kuusysi of Finland, Steaua found themselves involved in a stalemate in Bucharest. With the tie very much in the balance going into the return leg in Lahti, it was not until the 86th minute when Piţurcă scored what was to be the winning goal from close range to send Bucharest to the semi-finals.
Anderlecht and Enzo Scifo
With a historic feat on the horizon for the Romanian champions, there was one roadblock that had to be overcome and it came in the form of Belgian giants, Anderlecht. The Belgian side had made waves in the competition after knocking out one of the tournament favourites Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals 4-1 on aggregate. The star of this upset was Enzo Scifo, who showcased the type of form that saw him dazzle in the World Cup in Mexico later that year.
As well as Bayern, the reigning champions Juventus also exited the competition in the quarter-finals, after narrowly losing to Terry Venables’ Barcelona 2-1 on aggregate. This defeat saw Anderlecht go into the semi-finals as the slight favourites, alongside Barcelona. With the 1st leg in Brussels, Anderlecht established their dominance from the start and this paid off when Scifo scored the only goal of the game in the 73rd minute, to give his side a 1-0 advantage going into the second leg.
In the other semi-final, fellow favorites Barcelona experienced a Swedish nightmare as Venables’ men lost 3-0 to Göteborg, with all three goals coming within the opening hour of the match. Many pundits and experts now expected Seville to host a final between two giant killers in Göteborg and Anderlecht, but on the 16th April 1986, history was to be made.
Defying the odds
Now on their home soil in Bucharest, Steaua wasted little time in using this advantage to even the score, with top scorer Piţurcă netting the opener inside four minutes. His goal was followed by a second inside twenty-three minutes from fellow forward Balint. With the tie now turned on its head, it was Piţurcă who put the final stamp on Steaua’s passport to Seville with his second of the game. This performance, to this day, is still regarded as Steaua Bucharest’s finest in the competition that year, eclipsing the final in terms of style and dominance.
Across Europe, in Spain, Barcelona performed a much more impressive comeback themselves as Pichi Alonso’s hat-trick levelled the aggregate score to 3-3. As a result, extra time, followed by penalties occurred with Víctor Muñoz scoring the decisive penalty as Barcelona beat the Swedish champions 5-4 to book their place in the final.
The stage was now set for a David vs Goliath encounter in Seville for the 31st European Cup final.
David vs Goliath
Going into the 1986 European cup final, it is safe to say that Steaua Bucharest were the underdogs as Barcelona were in their native Spain and had tasted European success on three occasions previously in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, with the third coming the previous season under Venables.
However, despite the task in front of them, Jenei’s men seemed to show no fear of the big occasion but instead embraced it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Ștefan Iovan, who stood in for the suspended captain Stoica, described the mood around the camp at the time in an interview with UEFA on the 30th anniversary of the final:
“People were telling us we didn’t have a chance, but we weren’t scared at all, because we had formed a team with real personality. Jenei said, “Wouldn’t it be a pity not to take the trophy having reached final, knowing the chance might never come again.”
On Wednesday 7th May 1986, at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in Seville, the scene was set with a full capacity of 60,000 fans in attendance, with more than 59,000 made up of Barcelona fans as commentator Brian Moore highlighted on air. The lack of Steaua fans in attendance was a result of only a handful of carefully-vetted Romanians being allowed to travel to Seville for the final. This procedure is just one example of the controlling measures the people had to face under Romania’s Communist government at the time. Even so, a third of the fifty fans who attended the game did not return after successfully fleeing, whilst back home in Romania, many locals did not know until the last minute if the match was to be shown live on television – in the end it was.
With the Barcelona players coming out of the tunnel with an air of confidence about them, the same could be said of Jenei’s Steaua side as his players strolled out in a calm and relaxed manner to meet their opponents for the pre-game national anthems. It was Barcelona, in their two tone blue strip, who got the game underway in what was to be an evenly matched contest.
Miracles do exist
Steaua, also in their changed strip of all white, went toe to toe with their European opponents, neutralising the Spanish giants magnificently to the point where the crowd began to grow anxious. This growing anxiety amongst the Barcelona fans in attendance played on the minds of Venables’ team as the game went on, not to mention the seemingly unbeatable opposition goalkeeper between the sticks, Helmuth Duckadam.
Duckadam described this change in the atmosphere during the game in an interview with UEFA thirty years later:
“The atmosphere was fantastic – against us, of course – but sometimes a hostile atmosphere makes you feel even stronger”
With a disallowed goal from Pichi Alonso, due to an offside, the highlight of what was an uneventful ninety minutes of football, extra time and penalties loomed. After 120 minutes, the score remained 0-0 which meant the final was to be decided by a shootout, something Barcelona had experienced already in their semi-final fixture against Göteborg.
The first four penalties lived up to the nature of the game that preceded it as all four poor attempts were easily saved by the goalkeepers. However, Marius Lăcătuș and Balint netted both their penalties for Steaua, whilst Barcelona’s poor luck continued as their third was saved by the unbeatable Duckadam.
The fourth and most important penalty for Barcelona was to be taken by Marcos Alonso, father of former Chelsea and current Barcelona player of the same name. With a decent run up and low side-footed shot, his effort was saved by the impressive Duckadam and with it, the celebrations commenced as Steaua had done the unthinkable. Not only had they slayed a European giant in the final of the European Cup, but they had also made history by becoming the first Eastern European team to lift the coveted trophy. Duckadam, the hero of the day, described the importance of such a finish in the same interview:
“Previously, almost every Romanian team had lost shoot-outs in Europe, so winning on penalties was something unique. We didn’t have a player who could decide a match on their own, but we had a very good team with very good players.”
Steaua Bucharest’s miraculous 1986 campaign was a milestone not only for Eastern European football but European football in general, as it was not until Serbian side Red Star Belgrade’s 1991 European Cup success that this feat was matched. In the same year, however, Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv won the Cup Winners Cup in what appeared to be the dawn of the Eastern European era in club football.
The celebrations at the time of Steaua’s success are night and day compared to those seen today in the modern game, with only a touchline trophy presentation and a regulatory team photo with the coveted prize as the standout moments. No electric light displays or fireworks alongside banners proclaiming them as champions, as seen in modern celebrations, could be found back in 1986, but the pride their success brought to their nation was undeniable.
The introduction of the Bosman rule in 1995 meant that clubs no longer had to pay transfer fees after the expiration of a player’s contract, and with the European Cup morphing into the Champions League three years prior, the game saw an influx of television revenue, greater corporatisation and global visibility into the game. This financial influx saw a few clubs gain more influence and success at the expense of the rest, something that is more apparent today than ever before.
Now known as FCSB, after losing the rights to their ‘Steaua’ name due to a court battle between the Romanian army and George Becali, a big time investor in the club since the mid-1990s, the club is now climbing its way back to the top of Romanian football. This new start and the failure of the looming European Super League a couple years ago has seen the club dream of one day returning back to the top of European football. Though this seems a fantasy, as they have proved before, miracles can happen in football.