THIS SEASON the Champions League has thrilled fans, with the traditional big boys strutting their stuff bolstered by a litany of world-class stars. Teams from Eastern Europe have again fallen by the wayside with little fanfare. This was not always the case, however. Between 1986 and 1991, two teams from the region won the club game’s ultimate prize. Those teams were Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest, and their fortunes since their greatest days provide a snapshot of the chaos and decline that has pervaded football in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.
Just outside the city of Belgrade lies the sprawling concrete bowl of the Marakana, home of Red Star Belgrade. In the club’s heyday, over a hundred thousand people used to pack the terraces to see the team of Robert Prosinečki, Darko Pančev, Siniša Mihajlović and many other greats take on Europe’s finest sides.
Real Madrid were vanquished back in 1987, while in 1991, Bayern Munich were famously defeated 4-3 on aggregate thanks to a 90th-minute own goal from Klaus Augenthaler. To watch the pre-match pyro display from Red Star fans that night in the Marakana was to witness one of the most extraordinary sites in football. Even on the grainy video that we are left with 27 years later, the wall of noise and flames that greeted the teams that night is breathtaking.
At one point before kick-off, after some deafening chanting, flares are let off in unison around the ground to the point where it seems as if the whole stadium is on fire. Red Star’s triumph advanced them to the European Cup final where, despite sacrificing their attacking instincts in a 0-0 draw, they went on to beat Marseille on penalties to win the only European trophy in the club’s history.
Even the name of the stadium – Marakana – is a derivative of the famous Maracanã in Brazil. It says so much that rarely was the name mocked, such was the quality of Red Star and Yugoslavia that at times they reminded Europe of the great Brazil sides of the 1970s and 80s. Nowadays, the Marakana is a very different spectacle. Huge swathes of empty seats greet anyone who takes the short tram journey from Belgrade city centre. The stadium still holds up to 50,000 fans but the average attendance is around the 5,000 mark. It is impossible not to feel sad at the vast expanse of empty seats in an arena that once shook with the noise of 100,000.
In retrospect, the 1991 European Cup triumph was the high watermark for Red Star and Serbian football. The Yugoslav War that followed tore the team apart, forcing all the Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin players to leave. Red Star were then evicted from the Marakana by EU sanctions and forced to defend their European triumph at their new ‘home’ ground in Sofia, Bulgaria. The team has been on a downward spiral ever since.
The club’s feared firm of ultras, the Delije, also played their role in a conflict which engulfed the region.
The Delije are one of the most powerful ultras groups in Europe, looking after their members from cradle to grave in the manner of an enlarged family. They also have a dark side, however. It is not known exactly how many Delije participated in the violence and bloodshed of the Yugoslav War but it is almost certain that it was in the thousands.
Read | Red Star and the immortal triumph of 1991
The Delije also played a part in eventually bringing down the regime of President Slobodan Milošević, the man responsible for some of the most barbaric acts of the war and who has since been tried for war crimes at The Hague. In 2000, following the failed Kosovan war, the Delije orchestrated mass demonstrations against Milošević at the Marakana, which led to civil disobedience and political rallies across Serbia, and the eventual fall of Milošević’s government.
These days, the only time the Marakana shakes with the noise of chants and pyrotechnics is for the Eternal Derby against city rivals Partizan. Surely one of the most passionate and volatile derbies in world football, the game has sometimes been marred by running battles between fans but remains one of the most extraordinary and spectacular sites in the European game. Both sets of fans are steeped in the history and culture of their clubs, a tradition passed on from generation to generation.
This season, Red Star quietly slipped out of the Europa League with a 1-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow. Not many people noticed and fewer still will remember this club for one of the greatest European sides ever produced.
Red Star are not the only former European Cup winners to have fallen on hard times in Eastern Europe. Five years earlier, in 1986, Romanian side Steaua Bucharest had upset even greater odds than Red Star to defeat Barcelona in the European Cup final. It is hard to imagine now, in an era when Barcelona seem to win the Champions League with regularity, but in 1986 they were still waiting for their first ever European Cup. Winning the trophy had become something of an obsession for the Catalan club; the longer the wait went on the more the burden of expectation weighed on each generation of players.
For many, glory in 1986 was their destiny. Terry Venables’ side boasted the talents of German playmaker Bernd Schuster, Scottish striker Steve Archibald and Spanish midfielder Marcos Alonso. It was inconceivable that they could lose to the Romanian upstarts, a team with virtually no European pedigree. They hadn’t bargained, however, for the togetherness and resilience of the Steaua team.
Setting up defensively, Steaua repelled everything Barça could throw at them for 120 agonising minutes. It was at this point that one of the most extraordinary and elusive of footballing heroes took centre stage: Steaua goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam.
First, captain José Ramón Alexanko’s effort was pushed away, then Ángel Pedraza’s was saved in the same corner. The great Pichi stepped forward to the same result as Duckadam dived to his right to save. By now, Barça’s nerves were shot to pieces. Marcos stepped forward, placing his penalty to the opposite side as the previous three but the impassable force of Duckadam was there to save again, pushing the ball away. Incredibly, Steaua had vanquished the mighty Barcelona and won the European Cup.
Read | The slow death of Romanian football
What happened next sums up many of the problems that Steaua and Romanian football have faced both before and since that famous moment. Duckadam mysteriously disappeared the following summer, returning to football three years later, citing a blood condition as the reason for his absence, but in Romania there were dark rumours involving the henchmen of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the leader of the country’s brutal regime. Duckadam, it was said, had displeased the government in some way and been punished as a result. Nothing has ever been proven but the conspiracy theories still exist and the man himself remains reluctant to discuss the issue.
Sadly, political interference is a continual problem in Romanian football. Many of the titles won by Steaua and their local rivals Dinamo in the 1980s were subject to suspicions of state interference and pressure. These internal machinations, however, did not end with the fall of the totalitarian regime. The extraordinary state of Steaua now is a testament to that.
Gigi Becali has been the majority shareholder of Steaua since the fall of communism and the owner since 2003. To say Becali is a controversial figure is putting it mildly. His public statements make Donald Trump look positively reserved, and corruption allegations, ranging from bribery to kidnapping, have dogged him since he made his fortune in real estate following the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime.
Steaua had originally been owned by the Romanian army since the club’s founding in 1948, before privatisation allowed it to fall into Becali’s hands. When Becali landed himself in prison in 2013 over a land deal with the Ministry of Defence that lost the Ministry $6m, it was discovered that he had been using the Steaua name illegally having never officially bought it off the army. The Ministry successfully sued Becali for the naming rights and the controversial mogul was banned from using the Steaua name.
Steaua fans now faced a difficult choice. Should they support the army team with the heritage and name of Steaua Bucharest, a side in the fourth division semi-professional league, or should they pledge loyalty to the team bankrolled by Becali with a top-flight place and European competition but without the name and official history of Steaua.
Becali did not help matters by declaring his intention to name his new team FC Sporting Becali, claiming that “the fans will follow me like an army”. Instead they reacted in horror, leading Becali to eventually announce his team’s name as FC FCSB, ostensibly to signify FC Steaua Bucharest. Some fans, however, feel that it is no coincidence that the initials also spell Sporting Becali.
While the army team start life in the lower divisions with a long uphill climb ahead of them, Becali’s version of the club have not fared much better. In the 2016/17 season they lost 6-0 on aggregate to Manchester City in the Champions League qualifying rounds, and this season they crashed out 5-2 to Lazio in the first knockout round of the Europa League. The dispute between Becali and the army is unlikely to settle anytime soon. Whichever incarnation of Steaua fans choose to support, it seems that the glory days of Helmuth Duckadam and the only Romanian champions of Europe are as far away as ever.
Read | Yugoslavia in the 1990s: the wonder-team that never was
Red Star and Steaua are, of course, not the only clubs from behind the former Iron Curtain to have fallen on hard times. There are many other stories that could be told. There is the Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi, who ran rings around West Ham in a 4-1 win at Upton Park in 1981 before suffering from the chaos that pervaded the region after the fall of communism.
There is also the Dynamo Kyiv of manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi and striker Oleh Blokhin – perhaps Eastern Europe’s greatest footballer – who won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975. Later, in the 1990s and still under Lobanovskyi, spearheaded by Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov, Dynamo were only minutes away from reaching the 1999 Champions League final before a late Bayern Munich comeback denied them a place against Manchester United in Barcelona. This Dynamo side remains one of the few post-1991 success stories in Eastern European football.
Many clubs who had previously flourished in Europe were simply unprepared for the new world. Western clubs, offering far greater salaries than their Eastern counterparts could afford, quickly poached these side’s best players with promises of untold riches and a new, exciting way of life. Western clubs had been used to navigating the world of intricate transfer dealings and unscrupulous agents for years whereas many Eastern clubs, unused to these practices, were caught cold. As a result, they often lost their best players and most promising youngsters for a fraction of what they were actually worth.
This situation may have been recoverable in future years had it not been for the advent of the Champions League in 1992. The creation of UEFA’s new elite tournament meant that money flowed towards a select few clubs at the top of the English, Spanish and Italian leagues, and away from many of the historic centres of Eastern European football. In the modern global TV market, teams such as Manchester United, Bayern, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona earn enough to price the others out of the competition.
Matters were made worse this year with a new UEFA ruling guaranteeing that there will be four English, German, Spanish and Italian teams in the Champions League group stage from the 2018/19 season onwards, leaving even fewer spaces for the rest of Europe to fight over. This may lead to some titanic clashes between the big seven or eight teams every season but we have surely lost more than we have gained if many of the teams who contributed to the rich history of European football are now struggling to survive.
In many cases they risk fading into obscurity altogether, playing their games out in front of nearly empty stadiums every week while fans prefer to sit at home in front of the TV watching the soap opera of the Premier League or LaLiga. Their local teams simply cannot compete financially for the same quality of players and so become a less attractive and marketable prospect to TV companies and fans weaned on viewing the global game at the click of a button.
It is hard to see a future where teams such as Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Kyiv compete regularly for European trophies. All we can do is fight for their futures as a European game without these names is surely poorer for it.