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The rise, fall and rebirth(s) of Steaua Bucharest

Gamers around the world are currently engrossed in FIFA 20, the latest iteration of a popular title from EA Sports. For the first time, Romanian teams feature in the game, giving users the chance to delve into Liga I, the country’s top tier.

However, anyone looking for Steaua Bucharest, perhaps the most powerful and famous name in Romanian football, will be disappointed and mildly confused, because Steaua Bucharest no longer resides in the top division. At least not in the purest sense, anyway. A generic alternative known as FCSB takes its place, a fictional Pro Evo identity brought to life.

Such is the chaotic state of Romanian football, where chronic mismanagement and a total lack of commercial acumen has doomed some of the most successful clubs the country has to offer. Just two club owners in Liga I have not been to prison, a damning illustration of the corruption that killed Romanian football as we knew it.

A lot has been written about the rise, fall and subsequent identity crisis of Steaua Bucharest, but never in longform detail. Today, I would like to change that, digging deep into the cultural stitching of this club to analyse its past, present and future.

It is going to be an emotional ride, and you may want to grab a pen and paper to keep track, but welcome to the mindboggling concept of football in Bucharest.

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How Steaua Bucharest won the European Cup

Marcos, a mercurial winger, trudged towards the penalty spot for Barcelona. With a world of pressure on his shoulders, a cumbersome side-footed effort stunned 70,000 inside Seville’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.

Helmuth Duckadam, the enigmatic goalkeeper stood twelve yards away, saw a moment of potential glory. Collapsing to his left, Duckadam smothered the spot-kick, a fourth squandered by Barça in quick succession. And just like that, Steaua Bucharest were champions of Europe. 

No team from the Eastern Bloc had ever won the most cherished prize in continental football. No team from a communist nation had ever triumphed on the grandest stage European sport could offer. No team from the discarded backwater of Romania had ever made its people so proud. Until Helmuth Duckadam and the miracle of Andalusia.

The year was 1986. Stocked with the best footballers its country could muster, Steaua emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, showing the world what Romania was capable of achieving.

With victory over a raft of famous clubs, headlined by the sacrosanct Barça, Steaua became a vehicle of national pride, a hulking avatar of Romanian ingenuity. Football was the language of emancipation and Steaua was the author. Sport was a tool of national awakening as the Romanian people, so often misconstrued, were considered in more discerning tones.

A little over thirty years later, Steaua Bucharest no longer exists. Or it exists in two diluted, confused and unverified iterations, depending on whom you ask. A tale of myopia, narcissism, greed and naivety drove the best-supported institution in Romanian football to an identity crisis from which it is yet to fully recover. Once the champions of Europe, Steaua Bucharest became known as the club that lost its name. The road to respectability is dark and long.

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The history of Steaua Bucharest

Steaua Bucharest is Romania’s greatest export. To a western world obsessed by football, Steaua is Romania, or at least it was. For people like me, the blue and red stripes are a portal to cultural learning, sport possessing a timeless ability to conjure intrigue where otherwise insouciance would lurk.

To understand Steaua Bucharest is to delve into the fabric of Romanian society, navigating a delicate cosmology of politics, economics and idealism. The club traces its birth to 1947, but its spiritual genesis is rooted in decades of philosophical struggle at the very heart of Romania itself.

When World War II broke out, Romania adopted a position of neutrality under King Carol II, a hedonistic ruler mired by scandal. Of course, such a stance became unsustainable as conflict ravaged Europe, and the contagion caused unrest domestically, where the King felt pressure. Romania was eventually coaxed into partnership with the Axis powers, seeking guarantees of safety from Nazi Germany, which plundered its land for oil.

However, in August 1944, the Soviet Red Army crossed the border into Romania, toppling prime minister Ion Antonescu, a Holocaust perpetrator who enforced policies that were responsible for the deaths of 400,000 people. Romania changed course, joining the Allied effort and declaring war on Germany. Within weeks, the Soviets seized Bucharest, which became a seat of left-wing iconoclasm.

In the post-war vacuum, Red Army forces stayed in Romania and exerted de facto control over the nation. A leftist government was appointed in acrimonious fashion, with communists infiltrating the nucleus of power. Romania remained under the economic and political control of the USSR until the 1950s, and some experts estimate that two million people lost their lives due to communist brutality.

In the summer of 1947, by decree of the Romanian Royal House, the Army Sports Association București (ASA) was founded to promote athletic wellness. Similar to the model adopted in communist Poland, sports clubs had to exist within the purview of a state organ rather than existing as corporate entities. ASA was sponsored by the Romanian army, renaming a few times along those lines to better represent those interests.

General Mihail Lascar, high commander of the Romanian army, signed the club into existence and it won a maiden national football championship in 1951. A tour of England yielded draws with Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday in 1956, while victory over Luton Town helped ASA gauge its talent level. Further national titles were won in 1952, 1953, 1956 and 1960 as ASA became a credible footballing powerhouse.

In 1961, ASA renamed to CSA Steaua București (Army Sports Club Steaua). Translated from Romanian, Steaua means The Star, of course an evocative motif of communism. A new club crest was created, incorporating a yellow star and the words CS Steaua București. This is where the recognisable Steaua Bucharest identity finds its genesis.

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Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Romanian Revolution

Nicolae Ceaușescu, a stanch communist, rose to power in 1965, consolidating autonomy and renaming Romania as a socialist republic. Ceaușescu built a formidable cult of personality, while his wife, Elena, enjoyed a life of anachronistic materialism.

Ceaușescu’s brand of communism was one of the most severe ever attempted, aligned with Soviet sentiments. His government became totalitarian, enacting mass surveillance of Romanian citizens, who were among the most repressed in the Eastern Bloc. Ceaușescu controlled the media, using propaganda to modify the mood of his subjects, who saw opportunities dwindle to nothing.

The Securitate, or secret police, infiltrated every facet of contemporary life, stamping out dissent in brutal fashion. Meanwhile, the Ceaușescus lived opulently, owning many gold-furnished palaces around the country and stashing millions in Swiss bank accounts. With a love of decadent antiquity, Nicolae ordered much of Bucharest to be razed, rebuilding swathes of the city with Soviet-style social engineering.

The Ceaușescu family constructed a narrative that portrayed Nicolae and Elena as charismatic saviours of Romanian pride. State-run press accentuated positivity, painting Nicolae in particular as a modern statesman. Queen Elizabeth II welcomed the couple to Britain, honouring Nicolae with a knighthood. Similarly, the Romanian leaders toured the White House of Richard Nixon while citizens starved back home.

An ardent pronatalist, Ceaușescu regulated abortion and outlawed contraception, seeking to grow the Romanian population as a means of exerting power on the global stage. By state decree, women were told to bear at least five children, stimulating the economy. Through extreme harassment, the Securitate tracked their progress towards that goal as HIV spread throughout the nation.

“The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu declared. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”

Economic mismanagement saddled Romania with exorbitant debt, and when Ceaușescu exported much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production, shortages of vital products trashed living standards across the board. Food was rationed. Water, oil and electricity was sparse. Medicine became hard to find. The people slowly turned against their leader and his hypocritical ideology.

Amid such a bleak environment, sport was surprisingly embraced by Ceaușescu, who saw it as a medium through which to interact with the outside world. Rugby was of particular interest to the Romanian leader, who poured resources into athletics as a propaganda tool. Football, of course, provided a captive global audience, and Ceaușescu was receptive of ideas to encourage strong Romanian competition.

Valentin Ceaușescu, the eldest son of Nicolae, became president of Steaua, which enjoyed support from various cabals of Romanian power. Accusations of corruption, match-fixing and political intimidation were levelled at Steaua, whose close ties to the Ceaușescu dynasty ensured a constant supply of elite players. Often, Steaua simply stole promising players from lesser clubs, assembling a star-studded lineup that crushed opponents.

In 1971-72, Steaua beat Barcelona home and away in the European Cup Winners’ Cup before losing to Bayern Munich on away goals in the quarter final. The club developed a robust support throughout Romania as associating with Steaua afforded people some kind of identity in the bland void of communist life.

During the 1980s, Steaua won five national titles, four national cups and embarked on a 104-match unbeaten run domestically, a world record spanning almost four years. It was on the continental stage, however, that Steaua made an even greater impact, introducing mainstream football fans to the potential of Romania.

In 1985-86, English clubs were not allowed to participate in European competition following the disaster at Heysel Stadium. Amid a diluted talent pool, Steaua beat Vejle, Budapest Honvéd, Kuusysi and Anderlecht to play Barcelona in the final. A goalless stalemate gave way to the aforementioned spot-kick lottery, in which Duckadam became the first goalkeeper in history to save four penalties in a single shootout. Steaua Bucharest broke the western monopoly on the sacred grail of European football.

The Militarii built on such success, pillaging a young playmaker named Gheorghe Hagi from Sportul Studenţesc and refusing to pay a transfer fee in return. Hagi became one of the greatest players of his generation, and his solitary goal was the difference in a 1-0 Steaua win over Dynamo Kyiv in the 1986 European Super Cup. A crowd of just 8,456 gathered for the showcase in Monaco, however, as football offered a rare glimpse behind the Iron Curtain.

An engine of Romanian pride, Steaua then progressed to a global platform, facing River Plate in Tokyo for the Intercontinental Cup. The Argentinian powerhouse won 1-0, but Steaua represented its country with pride before 62,000 fans. From austere roots, a team from Romania rose to the biggest stage in world football. People became aware of Steaua Bucharest, and the general perception of Romanian culture was altered by its success.

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Steaua reached the European Cup semi-final in 1988 and appeared in a further final in 1989. Although AC Milan thumped them 4-0, Steaua beat established clubs like Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow and Galatasaray en route to that final, enriching its status among the elite of global football.

This was a time of deep unrest in the seething metropolis, however, and the Romanian people sought an end to the suffering perpetrated by Ceaușescu and his flawed axis. Revolution swept through the Eastern Bloc, catalysed by Poland and encompassing Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. State censorship diluted news of the uprisings, but the Romanian people felt a kinship with their neighbours, protesting in small, isolated pockets around the country.

In mid-December 1989, Romanian forces attempted to evict László Tőkés, an outspoken pastor in Timișoara, a growing city at the country’s western front. The Hungarian minority of Timișoara held a protest in support of their countryman, a display of rebellion that drew the ire of Securitate agents, who opened fire at the crowds, killing more than 90 people.

As violence spurted from other cities in repost, Nicolae Ceaușescu arranged a unifying rally in Palace Square, at the heart of Bucharest, his seat of power. Thousands of workers were bussed into the square under the threat of assassination. They were given flags, banners and large placards showing fake support for Ceaușescu. Government forces directed the crowd, in excess of 100,000, on when to applaud, smile and sing.

Nicolae contrived the entire scenario to quell dissent and consolidate power, but the crowd quickly turned against him. Chants in support of Timișoara left Ceaușescu puzzled and stunned. Never before had such a public affront to his autonomy been attempted. Nicolae and Elena barked at their subjects, urging calm, but a lifetime of hurt poured forth from the masses. Ceaușescu tried to appease the crowd with concessions such as raising the minimum wage, but people left the square to regroup in smaller pockets of rebellion.

Some protestors cut the communist symbol from the planted Romanian flags. Others chanted for change and devised plans to storm the Committee Building, from whose balcony Ceaușescu spoke. Support for the government waned and the army ignored orders to crush the protests as revolution erupted with volcanic will.

When protestors infiltrated the Committee Building, Nicolae and Elena scampered to a helicopter on the roof, fleeing Bucharest in a frail and confused mess. Rebels also stormed the state-run television channel, convincing producers to put them on air, where they declared victory over the wicked regime.

Nicolae and Elena were eventually captured by the Romanian army, tried by kangaroo court and sentenced to immediate execution for selling national assets and committing genocide in Timișoara. Pictures of their dead bodies, bloodied and mutilated, were beamed around the country as a new government was installed.

Romania slowly transitioned to the free market as a democratic state, although corruption still plagued the nation. As the Iron Curtain fell, eastern football was decimated as the best players, previously unattainable, were snapped up by wealthier clubs. Whereas the Ceaușescu government prevented Hagi from joining Milan and Bayern Munich, the free market allowed Real Madrid to sign him for $4.3 million, draining Steaua of resources somewhat symbolically.

Steaua remained strong in the 1990s, winning six consecutive national championships and regularly appearing in the Champions League group stages, but the new economic model of football put unbearable pressure on the club’s army reliance. Quite simply, in a young democratic state just finding its feet, the army had no money to spend on football. Newly rich entrepreneurs did, though, and Steaua transitioned from state adjunct to corporate entity in spluttering fashion.

Viorel Păunescu originally filled the void, relieving the financial burden of football placed upon the army. In 1998, the football club separated from CSA Steaua București and changed its name to FC Steaua București, a separate commercial organism. 

When Păunescu ran up massive debuts, Steaua was taken over by George Becali, another prominent businessman, in 2003, although no paperwork confirmed his ascendency. Becali turned the club’s governing company public, effectively severing ties with the army. And that’s where this story gets wild, because Gigi Becali is no ordinary businessman. 

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How Gigi Becali destroyed Steaua Bucharest

A childhood supporter of Dinamo Bucharest, the sworn enemy of Steaua, Becali built great personal wealth in real estate, often drawing suspicion for unconventional deals. 

One transaction in particular led to his downfall, a sale of land to the Romanian army deemed illegal because he didn’t actually own the plot initially. In 2013, Becali was handed a three-year suspended prison sentence for his role in the plot, but one in a string of controversies that engulfed the oligarch.

Indeed, under his command, Steaua became mired in criminality. Becali was also implicated in a bribery case when five of his associates were caught carrying a suitcase stuffed with cash, supposedly earmarked as a match-fixing bounty. Mihai Stoica, the club’s general manager, was arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering while Gheorghe Mustață, leader of a prominent Steaua ultras group, was held in connection with a murder.

Becali didn’t so much want Steaua to maintain its illustrious history as to bring it under his umbrella of greedy narcissism. A deeply religious Orthodox Christian, Becali owns a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, although Gigi himself is depicted as Jesus Christ. Humble, eh?

An arch capitalist, Becali also dappled in politics, where his views lunged to the right. Becali held unconscionable views of homosexuality, stating that Steaua would never sign an openly gay footballer and banning the stadium DJ from playing Queen records due to Freddy Mercury’s sexual orientation.

Becali also wanted to fund a national referendum on gay marriage to eradicate homosexuality. His rhetoric has been variously described as antagonistic, divisive and outright racist. That such a man came to own Steaua Bucharest is a great shame of our time.

When Becali wasn’t peddling hate-filled ideology, becoming embroiled in fights or gambling excessively at local casinos, he was busy agitating the army, whose encroachment on Steaua riled the eccentric owner. From his luxuriant mansions and occasionally from his prison cell, Becali micromanaged Steaua, typically leading it down the most oxymoronic roads imaginable. 

Despite repeated changes of manager, Steaua enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the 2000s, becoming the first Romanian team since 1993 to reach the spring round of a European competition. In 2005-06, they embarked on a fairy-tale run in the UEFA Cup, beating city rivals Rapid in a poetic quarter-final before losing in last-gasp horror to Middlesbrough when the final beckoned.

Steaua later returned to the Champions League for the first time in a decade. They even qualified for the group stage in 2007-08 but lacked the resources to make a serious continental challenge. By Steaua standards, a drought set in between 2006 and 2013 as the club won just three league titles.

Why Steaua Bucharest lost its name and logo

In 2011, Becali clashed with the army regarding exorbitant rent he was forced to pay at the dilapidated Ghencea Stadium. Perhaps in retaliation, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) asked Becali to produce documentation proving his ownership of Steaua and its associated imagery. When no paperwork was forthcoming, the MoD sued FC Steaua București, claiming that the Romanian Army was the rightful owner of the Steaua logo, colours, name and honours.

“I will give the team a new name,” Becali declared as turmoil engulfed his crumbling empire. “Let’s see who the fans will support: me or the general’s team? There are many people who are my fans, not Steaua’s. They support Steaua because of me. I will change the badge and the colours. I will leave the stadium. I will do whatever they want because I’m too strong for them.”

In reality, Steaua supporters were stuck in the middle of a bitter struggle for legitimacy. They were kept in the dark, starved of accurate information as to what was happening to their beloved club. At once deluded, Becali was also defeated after a protracted legal squabble. In December 2014, the Supreme Court found in the army’s favour, stripping Becali’s club of its recognisable identity.

According to the court, Becali’s registration of the Steaua brand in 2004, shortly after he gained a controlling stake, was illegal. Accordingly, every symbol relating to the club’s image was duly revoked from his organisation. The Steaua name and logo belonged to the army, not to Becali, as crisis reigned.

Steaua, or perhaps more accurately Not Steaua, was forced to play their next home game, against CSM Studențesc Iași, without any visible branding as it pertained to the army’s possession. The scoreboard showed a black box where the logo usually resided, while the word Steaua was replaced with “hosts,” a generic identity of stunning emotion. Steaua Bucharest, once the champions of Europe, had lost its distinguishing features.

Other departments of CSA Steaua Bucharest, such as teams competing in handball, basketball, fencing and water polo, continued to use the famous logo and colours. These arms of the sports club were still backed by the army, but Steaua had always been defined by football. It was the dominant incarnation and the gateway to addiction for many fans.

Heartbroken supporters of Steaua Bucharest’s football club turned to the other sports, appearing at games in considerable numbers and at vociferous volume. However, nothing compares to the rush of football, and that was taken away from diehard fans who deserved better. The army had the historical identity of Steaua but no money while Becali had money but no club name or logo.

Retreating from his earlier stance of opposition, Becali negotiated a brief reprieve with the army, allowing Steaua to play Dynamo Kyiv, that old familiar foe, using their original identity. They lost 2-0, crashing out of the 2014-15 Europa League in morose fashion. Just 8,000 fans bothered to turn up, getting lost in a stadium capable of hosting six times that number. A lack of business acumen killed Steaua Bucharest, and this was merely the funeral.

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As football fans, few things are more sacred to us than the name and logo of our beloved clubs. At a most basic level, football is a tribal plea for identity. It offers community, togetherness and structure where otherwise banality would reign.

Football is a motor of civic pride, pitting one conurbation against another in a clash of thoughts, feelings and values. The club logo is intrinsic to that fight. It beckons the lost and comforts the lonely. Without an identity, football clubs are nothing. 

Accordingly, to lose the cherished crest or to see one’s club renamed is tantamount to tragedy. When a football club acts as the centre of gravity in one’s universe, altering its appearance, culture or philosophy has disastrous consequences for social equilibrium. 

An entire worldview can be altered by merely tweaking the DNA of a football club. The consequences for those who subscribe to its meaning can be disastrous.

The Steaua Bucharest emblem was famous all over the globe, its popularity surpassing that of almost any other Romanian brand. When no longer connected to a first division football team, a team that conquered Europe impressionably, the logo lay dormant, another ruin of football’s spiralling commercialisation.

All involved should feel ashamed.

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What happened to Steaua Bucharest?

A new club crest was unveiled in January 2015, an eight-sided star featuring the letters FCSB. It was hideous, resembling a rushed attempt at rekindling the mystique of Steaua using Windows Paint. The club limped on through this strained existence for more than two years as influential fan groups boycotted and upstart clubs such as Astra Giurgiu, Viltorul Constanța and CFR Cluj won the national championship.

A 6-0 aggregate thrashing by Manchester City provided one last moment of global attention for Steaua before the Romanian Football Federation approved an application to modify the team name in March 2017. SC Fotbal Club Steaua București SA became SC Fotbal Club FCSB SA, extinguishing the Steaua legacy entirely.

The army demanded millions for use of its brand, but Becali was, and remains, too proud to stoop and accept its demands. FCSB retained its place in the topflight of Romanian football, to the chagrin of protestors, but all claims to the continuation of Steaua’s legacy were dismissed by football romantics.

“They probably want me to sell,” Becali said in one interview. “No problem, I can deal with that. But I have to announce to everyone that Steaua is not for sale. Not today, not tomorrow, not in 10 or 20 years. It is mine and will stay in the Becali family for years to come. We own it. I will make it shine again on a bright sky.”

Granted a mandate by the court ruling, CSA Steaua București, essentially an independent brand outside Becali’s sphere of influence, reactivated its football section and entered Liga IV, the fourth tier of Romanian football, in time for the 2017-18 season. A further court ruling in July 2019 confirmed that this Steaua, residing in the fourth division, was the rightful owner of all club honours won from inception until 2003, when Becali listed it publicly.

Contravening court judgements, UEFA and the Romanian LPF still consider FCSB as the spiritual Steaua Bucharest, creating a dichotomy of opinion straddling sensitive fault lines. However, all notable ultras groups, embodying the true remnants of grand old Steaua, now identify with the fourth division team, supporting it with unwavering passion.

Steaua was joined in the fourth tier by Rapid Bucharest, a historic rival and three-time national champion. Amid financial meltdown, Rapid saw its topflight license revoked in 2014 before bankruptcy was declared in 2016. A phoenix club was established in the lower leagues, which are regionalised and tethered to a convoluted playoff system.

When Steaua and Rapid met for the first time in the fourth division, a crowd of 36,000 showed up, claiming a rebirth of Romanian football, which has been ravaged by corruption. This fell short of Rangers’ world record crowd for a fourth tier match, but the support still dwarfed that afforded all other clubs in Romania. Steaua became the first European Cup winner to plummet so low in its respective domestic league structure.

Privately funded, the aim of CSA Steaua was to achieve a string of promotions and return to Liga I, the top tier, in time for the opening of a reconstructed Stadionul Ghencea in 2020. The ground improvements formed part of Romania’s contribution to Euro 2020, which will be staged across the entire continent. However, Steaua has failed to win even one promotion, eliciting violence from hardcore fans who have run out of patience.

When they lost in the fourth division playoffs earlier this year, Steaua ultras stormed onto the field and confronted their faltering heroes. Players were stripped of the Steaua shirt, deemed inadequate to represent such a fabled institution. In this chaotic guise, the melodrama continues. One can barely pontificate on what the future may hold.

A hypothetical meeting between Steaua and FCSB would be the most intense match modern football can muster. It would be AFC Wimbledon facing MK Dons only a thousand times more intense. I would simply have to find a ticket, because the contemporary game offers few greater avenues into the soul of a city, a people and a culture.

Nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to keep abreast of Steaua Bucharest news, updates and commentary. Even in a world obsessed with football, very few websites offer an accurate view of the Romanian fourth division. Yet quite beautifully, a team still plays there in the historic red and blue, that famous Steaua Bucharest logo etched across the heart.

Regardless of the division it calls home, Steaua Bucharest is still alive, and I for one will be cheering from the United Kingdom as it attempts to climb the slippery totem pole of Romanian football.

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