Way back in the mists of time that was 1986, it was possible for an Eastern European team to become kings of the continent. Everyone remembers the great Red Star Belgrade team of 1991, of course, but five years before that, in 1986, the Ros-Albastrii ( the Red & Blues) of Bucharest became the first club from the East to claim the ultimate prize in European club football.
The 1985/86 season was always going to be different, though. The tragedy at the Heysel Stadium and the scene of the 1985 final meant that English clubs were banned from continental competition for five years. At a stroke, the reigning champions of England, Everton, were removed from the following year’s Champions Clubs’ Cup, as it was then known.
Also entering isolation for five years would be Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, a club that had won the trophy four times since 1977, and had only lost out to Michel Platini’s winning penalty for Juventus in Brussels in 1985.
Whatever happened in 1986, the country that produced seven of the previous nine European champions would not be able to enter its league winners that year, or indeed any year, until 1990/91. Against this backdrop, it is possible to chart Steaua’s rise to prominence in season 1985/86.
When the European Cup got under way on 18th September 1985, Steaua faced Norway’s Vejle in the first round. A 1-1 draw in Scandinavia that night was followed up by an impressive 4-1 home win in Bucharest a fortnight later. Goals from Piturca, Boloni, Balint and Stoica gave hope to the faithful that Steaua’s stay in the competition might not be a short-lived one after all.
In the second round Budapest Honved formed the opposition, where the Hungarians duly won the first leg at home by a goal to nothing. As they had in the previous round, Steaua regrouped and destroyed Honved 4-1 in the home leg in Bucharest. In a surprisingly tight quarter final against Kuusyi of Finland, an eighty-sixth minute goal from Victor Piturca sealed the second leg, and the tie. It had been tight, but Steaua were through to the semi-finals.
An indication of how competitive that year’s quarter-finals had been is that both Juventus, the reigning champions, and Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga’s finest, had been bested in the last eight. Whereas Juventus had been knocked out 2-1 by Barcelona, Bayern had surprisingly come off second best to Belgium’s champions, Anderlecht.
Following a 2-1 win in Munich, Bayern had no answer to two first-half goals in the second-leg in Brussels. For Anderlecht, Enzo Scifo was showing the kind of form that would see him shine for Belgium in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
When the semi-finals came round it was that man Scifo that Steaua would have to worry about, as it was the Belgians, Anderlecht, which lay in wait. Meanwhile, Terry Venables’ Barcelona had Swedish champions Gothenburg to contend with in the other match. As was the case in the previous round, a competitive, topsy-turvy quartet of matches made up the semi-finals.
When Steaua were sunk 1-0 by an Enzo Scifo goal in Brussels, it looked as though their number was up. Similarly, a Swedish nightmare unfolded for Barcelona in Gothenburg, as three goals in the opening hour meant that Venables’ men went back to Catalonia with much thinking to do. Surely, the final would be between Anderlecht, who had vanquished Bayern Munich in the previous round, and Gothenburg, who had thumped Barcelona 3-0 in the home leg of the semi-final?
On 16th April both second legs got under way. Piturca scored in the fourth minute for Steaua, while Balint added a second on 23 minutes. On 71 minutes, Piturca sealed the tie and Steaua’s place in the final. Incredibly, they had pulled it off, 3-0 to Steaua Bucharest, making them the first Eastern European contestants in the Champions Clubs’ Cup Final since Partizan Belgrade twenty years earlier.
That their opponents in the final were Barcelona was due to a similarly heroic turnaround in the Camp Nou. A Pichi Alonso hat-trick levelled the scores, after which came extra-time and then penalties. This time it was Barca that held their nerve, winning 5-4 in the shoot-out as Victor Munoz slotted home the winning penalty.
On Wednesday 7th May, 1986 history was made. Deep in the south of Spain, in the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, on the kind of balmy, sultry evening the final of the European Cup is made for, Steaua Bucharest sauntered out to meet FC Barcelona. The game itself was certainly no epic. Steaua, in the change strip of all white, matched Barcelona, for whom a below par Bernd Schuster, struggling with injury, failed to establish his usual grip on the game.
At 90 minutes it was goalless, after 120 it was still 0-0 and so, just as in Rome two years previously, the final of the European Cup would be decided on penalties. In the history of penalty shoot-outs, probably only Holland’s similarly inept performance in the 2000 European Championship semi-final with Italy can rival Barca’s performance that evening. Whereas the Dutch did at least score in their shoot-out, Barcelona missed every single penalty in Seville.
It was an excruciating spectacle for Venables and the team’s fans. The two penalties struck home by Lacatus and Balint were enough to secure the grand old trophy for Steaua Bucharest.
Their celebrations were uncharacteristically muted by today’s standards, with the trophy lift taking place on a small red cloth covered table down at pitch level. On the team photographs taken afterwards, a member of the coaching staff stands at the back, upright, with a regulation Adidas hold-all perched on the turf beside him.
No placards, no banners proclaiming them champions, no Super Bowl-lite histrionics; though the pride in their achievement is palpable. When skipper Stefan Iovan lifts ‘Old Big Ears’ aloft, there is genuine spontaneous pleasure, without the choreographed theatrics of modern trophy presentations.
When Liverpool fans taunted their rivals from across Stanley Park in 2010 with a banner emblazoned with the European Cup and the tagline “Steaua Bucuresti 1986”, they were not only pushing Evertonian buttons, but also playing on the assumption that a vintage Everton missed out on their greatest chance to become the European champions that year.
That they did not and could compete was, of course, no fault of theirs. It is one of football’s great imponderables as to how Everton would have shaped up in 1986, although this should not detract from Steaua’s performance and their rightful place among the continent’s champions.
Make no mistake, they had genuine quality in the likes of goalkeeper Helmut Duckadem, captain Stefan Iovan, inside forward Marius Lacatus and forwards Victor Piturca and Gavrila Balint. As if to prove the point they reached the final again in 1989 with perhaps an even finer vintage.
This time, with Gheorghe Hagi and Dan Petrescu in their line-up, they were outgunned by Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in the final in Barcelona. But Steaua had proved their point: that teams from the East could mix it with the best the West had to offer.
In Steaua’s glorious European Cup winning year of 1986, the Cup Winners Cup was also won by Dynamo Kyiv, with a team that would go on to provide the bulk of Valeri Lobanovsky’s Soviet national side at Mexico 1986 and at the European Championships in West Germany two years later. Moreover, it was Dynamo’s Igor Belanov that walked away with the Ballon d’Or in 1986.
When Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in Bari in 1991 it looked like the East had risen again. Change was on the horizon, though. Along came the Bosman Ruling and, of course, the European Cup had already morphed into the UEFA Champions League for season 1992/93. Since then greater corporatisation, a surfeit of television money and greater global visibility has seen the influence and success of all but a minority of European clubs wane.
Gone, too, is the element of surprise that a straight knock-out competition could bring. A protracted initial group stage now means that wealthier clubs with bigger squads can recover from any setbacks and still qualify for the crucial knock-out stages. None of this mattered before the advent of the Champions League, where a much vaunted outfit could still come a cropper against a less fancied opponent in the early rounds and end up exiting the competition altogether.
All these changes are evident in the make-up of every Champions League final since its inception in 1992/93. As the Champions League hymn –an ode to exclusivity if ever there was one – plays out across the ground prior to kick-off, it is invariably the preface to a contest between two teams from the ‘Big Four’ European leagues – England, Germany Italy and Spain.
Of the 46 teams to contest the final in the Champions League’s history, 41 have come from one of those big leagues, with 12 each from Italy and Spain, nine from England and eight from Germany, making up a staggering 89% of all teams contesting the final.
Additionally, we have witnessed an era of five single nation finals, with two all-Spanish finals, one all-German, one all-Italian and even Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s decampment to Moscow in May 2008. It is not just clubs from Eastern Europe that have felt the squeeze either – the only other clubs to get a look in at the season finale have been Ajax (Holland) twice, FC Porto (Portugal) once and two from France in the form of Marseille in 1993 and AS Monaco in 2004.
The trophy may be the same, but the competition is a different beast to the one that Steaua Bucharest mastered back in 1986. Whereas nowadays the trophy seems to be shared around a select club of exalted names, it would do wonders for the European game and its spirit if a Steaua or a Red Star could rise again.