Ecstasy and agony

Helmut Duckadam saved a record four penalties as unfancied Steaua București beat Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup final, sealing a historic win that should have brought stardom – but soon became the last major act of his career. Here he looks back on an extraordinary season

WORDS Emanuel Rosu

History
Never before had a team from the east lifted the European Cup. Never before had one goalkeeper saved four penalties in a shoot-out, let alone to defeat a powerhouse club on the biggest stage of all. But after Helmut Duckadam and his Steaua București team-mates returned home following their surprise defeat of Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup final, they found at least one Romanian who refused to be impressed: Nicolae Ceaușescu, the country’s brutal communist dictator.

The ruling regime was quick to take credit for Steaua’s triumph – but Ceaușescu himself just had to knock the new European champions down a peg or two. “There was a reception and Ceaușescu was mingling,” says Duckadam . “That didn’t happen very often, for Ceaușescu to hold receptions like that. It was like we were his friends – but his words weren’t that friendly. He kept his distance. He even told us that if we’d been better prepared, we would have won the game in normal time.”

Cue the clinking of glasses and uncomfortable laughter. But such cold disdain was typical of life behind the Iron Curtain – and typical of the man who would be swept away in a bloody revolution just three years later. “They were the Communist times,” says Duckadam, suddenly transported to a different era. “No further comment…” 

The trail-off in Duckadam’s voice conceals decades of history. And it is history worth clarifying – not least to underline the scale of Steaua’s unlikely triumph. When Duckadam and Co headed to Seville to face the might of Barcelona, they were leaving behind a country still suffering the strictures of a dying system. Shops were empty, meat was a luxury and people queued for long hours to buy essentials such as bread and milk. Meanwhile, electricity was cut off during the day and many lacked heating at home. 

In comparison, Romania’s elite footballers led a relatively privileged existence. Relatively. “Let me tell you a story to help you understand better where we came from,” says Duckadam, thinking back to Steaua’s preparations for that final – and how dependent they were on Ceaușescu’s son Valentin, the club’s unofficial director of football. “Valentin helped us train under floodlights at the country’s biggest stadium. The Communist regime had limitations regarding electricity consumption and only Valentin could help us. We got to have two training sessions on two different evenings. We’d never trained like that before.” 

Their situation barely improved in Seville – and not just because Barcelona were basically playing at home. Firstly, on the night before the final at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, they travelled to Real Betis’s ground for a floodlit training session – only to be told that no one had been informed of their plans. A technician had to be telephoned at home to come in and crank up the lights, and Steaua spent half an hour training in the dark.

On top of that, Steaua were barred from wearing any of the kit they had brought with them. “We have the same colours as Barça: red and blue,” says Duckadam. “Valentin got us some kits from a factory so we wore white and red for the final. We only got our official match kit the night before and we’d never played in those colours. They were the colours of our arch-rivals, Dinamo. The goalkeeper’s shirt was all green but I was very proud – I looked great in it.”

White and red? True, that impromptu kit carried the stigma of capital foes Dinamo București, but this was also the traditional colour scheme of Sevilla FC. Valentin hoped the choice might shift local sympathy towards Steaua, especially as only about 1,000 supporters were allowed to make the trip from Bucharest – and these were no die-hard devotees. 

Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.

While Barcelona warmed up in ignorant bliss, an atmosphere of paranoia swelled around the Steaua camp. The players were shadowed by an officer from Romania’s secret police, who almost had a heart attack courtesy of prodigy Marius Lăcătuș during a walk in Seville. “Come on mate, let’s take a picture together so you can have a memory to take home to your boss,” joked the 22-year-old, hinting at mass defection. “It’s the last time you’ll see us like this…”

Back in Romania, supporters weren’t even sure they could watch the final, despite Steaua’s previous ties having been shown on TV. The club had paid for the broadcast, but other Communist leaders said costs needed to be cut at the state-owned TV service. Locals scrambled for alternatives, rigging homemade antennas to pick up signals from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia – anywhere, basically – before the national broadcaster eventually relented.

Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.
An original memento: A ticket from the '86 final

What they got to see was Emeric Ienei’s team surviving a smattering of Barcelona chances for 120 minutes, with Miodrag Belodedici imperious at the back for a side content to smother their opponents. This was no free-flowing classic. The appropriate word might even be ‘dour’ but it did at least yield surprises, not least when Ienei subbed in his assistant coach, 36-year-old Anghel Iordănescu, who hadn’t played competitive football in nearly three years. 

Eyebrows were also raised when Barça boss Terry Venables withdrew key duo Bernd Schuster and Steve Archibald – a tacit admission that his attacking plans were not working. And the game remained goalless until it eventually headed to penalty kicks, setting the stage for Duckadam’s appointment with destiny.

“My dream as a teenager was to play a big game and be the hero, but I didn’t dare to imagine myself in a European Cup final,” he says. “Somehow, penalties were my speciality. I used to stay behind with my colleagues after training and we made bets on penalties. I used to take them myself. But how could I dare picture myself in a European Cup final? And how could I imagine myself winning it on penalties?”

Whatever he once imagined, the 63-year-old has now had almost four decades to reflect on that night – and how another shortcoming in Steaua’s preparations possibly played into his hands. “There were two journalists who tried to get us videos of our opponents’ games. The only match I didn’t see was Barcelona’s 3-0 [semi-final second-leg] win against Göteborg, which ended in a penalty shoot-out. They probably thought I knew how they’d taken their kicks just a few weeks before, but I never had a clue.”

And the crowd of about 70,000, mostly hoping he would fail? “The stadium was massively dominated by Barcelona fans. When our players took their kicks, the crowd made an incredible noise. On the other hand, when Barcelona’s players got close to the ball… the silence of a cathedral. That helped me concentrate. They didn’t want to bother the Barcelona players, but it turns out they helped me more. I refused to watch my team-mates take their kicks. I just laid on my back watching the sky.”

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex”

Had he been looking, Duckadam would have seen Mihail Majearu and László Bölöni fail with Steaua’s first two attempts. Just as well, then, that his mastery of mind games was on a different level. “The first one was the most difficult. It was a matter of chance, inspiration, luck – call it what you want. I made a guess for the shot [José Ramón] Alexanko took. It was the kind of kick a keeper loves to save: not high, not powerful. Had I gone the other way, everyone would have said Alexanko kept his nerve.

“With the second I started applying logic. I put myself in the shooter’s boots. I wasn’t interested that we’d missed our opening penalty. [Ángel] Pedraza was next. I thought about what I would do if I was him. Pedraza hit it hard and it was the most powerful of the four. I went to my right again. He thought I’d change direction. I was very fit. I had strong legs and could push myself to the limit and save it.

“Barcelona’s third was the easiest to stop. Pichi Alonso thought, ‘OK, he went right twice but he won’t push his luck.’ I was there when the ball came and saved it with confidence. And for the final penalty, I played an effective mind game. First, I let Marcos [Alonso] think I was going to my left. Then, as he got closer to the ball, I moved right a bit and finally dived left. He saw me moving and thought I’d keep going right. 

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But with 70,000 people around you in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex.” Undoubtedly so, which may be why Duckadam still remembers every flinch and muscle flex during the 2-0 shoot-out triumph. And why millions of Romanians can still recite the words screamed by the TV commentator when the man in green made his fourth and final save: “Duckadam stops it! We are finalists! We’ve won the cup! The European Cup is coming to Bucharest!”

For the players, this was the time to bask in glory. And not just any old glory: a groundbreaking first for a team from behind the Iron Curtain. But after taking photos with the trophy they were at a loss for what to do next, that old Soviet Bloc mentality stifling their reaction. “We didn’t know how to celebrate,” says Duckadam. “We were in a state of shock. I see teams celebrating nowadays and I think of us. We didn’t know what to do. It hurts me that we didn’t know how to celebrate that huge achievement. 

“We went to the hotel and drank a glass of wine, some champagne and that was pretty much it. The next day, in the city, it was extraordinary. Barcelona were rivals of both Sevilla and Betis, so people kept inviting us to drink beer and give autographs on banknotes and napkins. It was amazing for us, coming from a closed, communist country.”

Back home their supporters were less reserved, with thousands walking about 20km to Otopeni Airport. They were all hoping to greet the returning champions, not knowing of their plans. “The game ended late so we spent one more day in Seville – people were waiting in vain,” says Duckadam. “The next day, on our actual return, there was a military exercise over Italy. Our cabin crew messaged the military guys and asked for a flight lane so we wouldn’t have to land. The captain explained he was there with Duckadam, ‘the hero of the final’, and that made me feel special. The Italians were kind enough to let us to fly home directly.

“When we landed in Bucharest there were tens of thousands waiting for us. All the way to the city, people had torches and fire barrels to make as much light as possible to see us on the bus. I can’t describe those feelings. Everyone was eager to offer us a beer, a glass of wine or something to eat in the city in the days that followed. The feeling was amazing.”

Amazing, but quickly undercut. As if Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reception dig were not enough, the country’s only sports paper, Sportul, carried scant references to the game. More than 90% of its content on 8 May 1986, the day after the final, was dedicated to the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party.

Then came the bonuses, which were classic Eastern Bloc perks: a fleet of second-hand cars belonging to the army, Steaua’s official patrons. “Two months after the final they gave us each an ARO, a Romanian SUV of that time,” says Duckadam. “We got them from the army car park, old and used. Ștefan Iovan, the captain in Seville, had an even bigger surprise: his ARO was welded together from multiple parts. He went mad and asked for another one.”

The players eventually got good prices for their motors from local shepherds but for Duckadam, the brutal comedown was far from over. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his right arm following a fall while fishing, then before long rumours started to circulate that he had actually been shot by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s other son, Nicu, perhaps out of jealousy over his new levels of popularity. Duckadam, however, is insistent that the truth is far more prosaic. 

“I’ve been denying the ‘Nicu shot you’ story for 36 years and counting! Back then, in Bucharest, the hate towards the regime was immense, so if people spoke about something on a bus during the morning, the entire city would be buzzing by evening. Life wasn’t easy, so people used everything to attack the Ceaușescu family. But I wasn’t shot. It was this aneurysm that’s given me problems ever since.”

Mark that down as an understatement. Surgeries saved Duckadam’s life but not his career – and Steaua soon abandoned their hero. “I joined up with the team and travelled to Japan for the Intercontinental Cup. I even dived a bit in the warm-up for the cameras, but I wasn’t in the squad. I could only dive with my left arm. After the game, the doctors told me it was far too dangerous to go on playing. I was immediately kicked out of Steaua and the army. Just months after the final, I was left with nothing.”

Still only 27, Duckadam would never grace European competition again. It was three years before he played any football at all, signing off with a short stint at lower-tier Vagonul Arad. The goalkeeper who had set the most impeccable of standards was flushed away as a one-hit wonder. But times change, regimes change – and perceptions can be corrected. 

“UEFA invited me to present an award to Petr Čech when he was goalkeeper of the year,” says Duckadam, now a TV pundit. “I was also a guest in Seville for a European final. I guess I’ve become one of the city’s small symbols. Now I want to go to Nyon – I’ve heard there’s a big photo of me at UEFA’s headquarters. It’s nice to see I haven’t been forgotten.”

As for whether his shoot-out feat can ever be matched, Duckadam believes it can – though never in the same way. Never with the same meaning. “Why would it be impossible?” he says. “But I think what I did is unique. It was the first of its kind. I was part of an eastern European team. The score after four penalties and 120 minutes of football was still 0-0. That final can never be repeated.” 

History
Road to Seville

First round

Vejle 1-1 Steaua București 

Radu '89

Steaua București 4-1 Vejle 

Pițurcă 8, Bölöni 34, Balint 51, Stoica 74

Steaua win 5-2 on aggregate

Second round

Budapest Honvéd 0-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 4-1 Budapest Honvéd 

Pițurcă 1, Lăcătuș 35, Bărbulescu 46, Majearu 52 (pen)

Steaua win 4-2 on aggregate

Quarter-finals

Steaua București 0-0 Kuusysi 

Kuusysi 0-1 Steaua București

Pițurcă 86

Steaua win 1-0 on aggregate

Semi-finals

Anderlecht 1-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 3-0 Anderlecht  

Pițurcă 4, 71; Balint 23

Steaua win 3-1 on aggregate

Final

Steaua București 0-0 Barcelona (aet)

Steaua win 2-0 on penalties

The ruling regime was quick to take credit for Steaua’s triumph – but Ceaușescu himself just had to knock the new European champions down a peg or two. “There was a reception and Ceaușescu was mingling,” says Duckadam . “That didn’t happen very often, for Ceaușescu to hold receptions like that. It was like we were his friends – but his words weren’t that friendly. He kept his distance. He even told us that if we’d been better prepared, we would have won the game in normal time.”

Cue the clinking of glasses and uncomfortable laughter. But such cold disdain was typical of life behind the Iron Curtain – and typical of the man who would be swept away in a bloody revolution just three years later. “They were the Communist times,” says Duckadam, suddenly transported to a different era. “No further comment…” 

The trail-off in Duckadam’s voice conceals decades of history. And it is history worth clarifying – not least to underline the scale of Steaua’s unlikely triumph. When Duckadam and Co headed to Seville to face the might of Barcelona, they were leaving behind a country still suffering the strictures of a dying system. Shops were empty, meat was a luxury and people queued for long hours to buy essentials such as bread and milk. Meanwhile, electricity was cut off during the day and many lacked heating at home. 

In comparison, Romania’s elite footballers led a relatively privileged existence. Relatively. “Let me tell you a story to help you understand better where we came from,” says Duckadam, thinking back to Steaua’s preparations for that final – and how dependent they were on Ceaușescu’s son Valentin, the club’s unofficial director of football. “Valentin helped us train under floodlights at the country’s biggest stadium. The Communist regime had limitations regarding electricity consumption and only Valentin could help us. We got to have two training sessions on two different evenings. We’d never trained like that before.” 

Their situation barely improved in Seville – and not just because Barcelona were basically playing at home. Firstly, on the night before the final at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, they travelled to Real Betis’s ground for a floodlit training session – only to be told that no one had been informed of their plans. A technician had to be telephoned at home to come in and crank up the lights, and Steaua spent half an hour training in the dark.

On top of that, Steaua were barred from wearing any of the kit they had brought with them. “We have the same colours as Barça: red and blue,” says Duckadam. “Valentin got us some kits from a factory so we wore white and red for the final. We only got our official match kit the night before and we’d never played in those colours. They were the colours of our arch-rivals, Dinamo. The goalkeeper’s shirt was all green but I was very proud – I looked great in it.”

White and red? True, that impromptu kit carried the stigma of capital foes Dinamo București, but this was also the traditional colour scheme of Sevilla FC. Valentin hoped the choice might shift local sympathy towards Steaua, especially as only about 1,000 supporters were allowed to make the trip from Bucharest – and these were no die-hard devotees. 

Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.

While Barcelona warmed up in ignorant bliss, an atmosphere of paranoia swelled around the Steaua camp. The players were shadowed by an officer from Romania’s secret police, who almost had a heart attack courtesy of prodigy Marius Lăcătuș during a walk in Seville. “Come on mate, let’s take a picture together so you can have a memory to take home to your boss,” joked the 22-year-old, hinting at mass defection. “It’s the last time you’ll see us like this…”

Back in Romania, supporters weren’t even sure they could watch the final, despite Steaua’s previous ties having been shown on TV. The club had paid for the broadcast, but other Communist leaders said costs needed to be cut at the state-owned TV service. Locals scrambled for alternatives, rigging homemade antennas to pick up signals from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia – anywhere, basically – before the national broadcaster eventually relented.

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Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.
An original memento: A ticket from the '86 final

What they got to see was Emeric Ienei’s team surviving a smattering of Barcelona chances for 120 minutes, with Miodrag Belodedici imperious at the back for a side content to smother their opponents. This was no free-flowing classic. The appropriate word might even be ‘dour’ but it did at least yield surprises, not least when Ienei subbed in his assistant coach, 36-year-old Anghel Iordănescu, who hadn’t played competitive football in nearly three years. 

Eyebrows were also raised when Barça boss Terry Venables withdrew key duo Bernd Schuster and Steve Archibald – a tacit admission that his attacking plans were not working. And the game remained goalless until it eventually headed to penalty kicks, setting the stage for Duckadam’s appointment with destiny.

“My dream as a teenager was to play a big game and be the hero, but I didn’t dare to imagine myself in a European Cup final,” he says. “Somehow, penalties were my speciality. I used to stay behind with my colleagues after training and we made bets on penalties. I used to take them myself. But how could I dare picture myself in a European Cup final? And how could I imagine myself winning it on penalties?”

Whatever he once imagined, the 63-year-old has now had almost four decades to reflect on that night – and how another shortcoming in Steaua’s preparations possibly played into his hands. “There were two journalists who tried to get us videos of our opponents’ games. The only match I didn’t see was Barcelona’s 3-0 [semi-final second-leg] win against Göteborg, which ended in a penalty shoot-out. They probably thought I knew how they’d taken their kicks just a few weeks before, but I never had a clue.”

And the crowd of about 70,000, mostly hoping he would fail? “The stadium was massively dominated by Barcelona fans. When our players took their kicks, the crowd made an incredible noise. On the other hand, when Barcelona’s players got close to the ball… the silence of a cathedral. That helped me concentrate. They didn’t want to bother the Barcelona players, but it turns out they helped me more. I refused to watch my team-mates take their kicks. I just laid on my back watching the sky.”

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex”

Had he been looking, Duckadam would have seen Mihail Majearu and László Bölöni fail with Steaua’s first two attempts. Just as well, then, that his mastery of mind games was on a different level. “The first one was the most difficult. It was a matter of chance, inspiration, luck – call it what you want. I made a guess for the shot [José Ramón] Alexanko took. It was the kind of kick a keeper loves to save: not high, not powerful. Had I gone the other way, everyone would have said Alexanko kept his nerve.

“With the second I started applying logic. I put myself in the shooter’s boots. I wasn’t interested that we’d missed our opening penalty. [Ángel] Pedraza was next. I thought about what I would do if I was him. Pedraza hit it hard and it was the most powerful of the four. I went to my right again. He thought I’d change direction. I was very fit. I had strong legs and could push myself to the limit and save it.

“Barcelona’s third was the easiest to stop. Pichi Alonso thought, ‘OK, he went right twice but he won’t push his luck.’ I was there when the ball came and saved it with confidence. And for the final penalty, I played an effective mind game. First, I let Marcos [Alonso] think I was going to my left. Then, as he got closer to the ball, I moved right a bit and finally dived left. He saw me moving and thought I’d keep going right. 

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But with 70,000 people around you in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex.” Undoubtedly so, which may be why Duckadam still remembers every flinch and muscle flex during the 2-0 shoot-out triumph. And why millions of Romanians can still recite the words screamed by the TV commentator when the man in green made his fourth and final save: “Duckadam stops it! We are finalists! We’ve won the cup! The European Cup is coming to Bucharest!”

For the players, this was the time to bask in glory. And not just any old glory: a groundbreaking first for a team from behind the Iron Curtain. But after taking photos with the trophy they were at a loss for what to do next, that old Soviet Bloc mentality stifling their reaction. “We didn’t know how to celebrate,” says Duckadam. “We were in a state of shock. I see teams celebrating nowadays and I think of us. We didn’t know what to do. It hurts me that we didn’t know how to celebrate that huge achievement. 

“We went to the hotel and drank a glass of wine, some champagne and that was pretty much it. The next day, in the city, it was extraordinary. Barcelona were rivals of both Sevilla and Betis, so people kept inviting us to drink beer and give autographs on banknotes and napkins. It was amazing for us, coming from a closed, communist country.”

Back home their supporters were less reserved, with thousands walking about 20km to Otopeni Airport. They were all hoping to greet the returning champions, not knowing of their plans. “The game ended late so we spent one more day in Seville – people were waiting in vain,” says Duckadam. “The next day, on our actual return, there was a military exercise over Italy. Our cabin crew messaged the military guys and asked for a flight lane so we wouldn’t have to land. The captain explained he was there with Duckadam, ‘the hero of the final’, and that made me feel special. The Italians were kind enough to let us to fly home directly.

“When we landed in Bucharest there were tens of thousands waiting for us. All the way to the city, people had torches and fire barrels to make as much light as possible to see us on the bus. I can’t describe those feelings. Everyone was eager to offer us a beer, a glass of wine or something to eat in the city in the days that followed. The feeling was amazing.”

Amazing, but quickly undercut. As if Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reception dig were not enough, the country’s only sports paper, Sportul, carried scant references to the game. More than 90% of its content on 8 May 1986, the day after the final, was dedicated to the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party.

Then came the bonuses, which were classic Eastern Bloc perks: a fleet of second-hand cars belonging to the army, Steaua’s official patrons. “Two months after the final they gave us each an ARO, a Romanian SUV of that time,” says Duckadam. “We got them from the army car park, old and used. Ștefan Iovan, the captain in Seville, had an even bigger surprise: his ARO was welded together from multiple parts. He went mad and asked for another one.”

The players eventually got good prices for their motors from local shepherds but for Duckadam, the brutal comedown was far from over. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his right arm following a fall while fishing, then before long rumours started to circulate that he had actually been shot by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s other son, Nicu, perhaps out of jealousy over his new levels of popularity. Duckadam, however, is insistent that the truth is far more prosaic. 

“I’ve been denying the ‘Nicu shot you’ story for 36 years and counting! Back then, in Bucharest, the hate towards the regime was immense, so if people spoke about something on a bus during the morning, the entire city would be buzzing by evening. Life wasn’t easy, so people used everything to attack the Ceaușescu family. But I wasn’t shot. It was this aneurysm that’s given me problems ever since.”

Mark that down as an understatement. Surgeries saved Duckadam’s life but not his career – and Steaua soon abandoned their hero. “I joined up with the team and travelled to Japan for the Intercontinental Cup. I even dived a bit in the warm-up for the cameras, but I wasn’t in the squad. I could only dive with my left arm. After the game, the doctors told me it was far too dangerous to go on playing. I was immediately kicked out of Steaua and the army. Just months after the final, I was left with nothing.”

Still only 27, Duckadam would never grace European competition again. It was three years before he played any football at all, signing off with a short stint at lower-tier Vagonul Arad. The goalkeeper who had set the most impeccable of standards was flushed away as a one-hit wonder. But times change, regimes change – and perceptions can be corrected. 

“UEFA invited me to present an award to Petr Čech when he was goalkeeper of the year,” says Duckadam, now a TV pundit. “I was also a guest in Seville for a European final. I guess I’ve become one of the city’s small symbols. Now I want to go to Nyon – I’ve heard there’s a big photo of me at UEFA’s headquarters. It’s nice to see I haven’t been forgotten.”

As for whether his shoot-out feat can ever be matched, Duckadam believes it can – though never in the same way. Never with the same meaning. “Why would it be impossible?” he says. “But I think what I did is unique. It was the first of its kind. I was part of an eastern European team. The score after four penalties and 120 minutes of football was still 0-0. That final can never be repeated.” 

History
Road to Seville

First round

Vejle 1-1 Steaua București 

Radu '89

Steaua București 4-1 Vejle 

Pițurcă 8, Bölöni 34, Balint 51, Stoica 74

Steaua win 5-2 on aggregate

Second round

Budapest Honvéd 0-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 4-1 Budapest Honvéd 

Pițurcă 1, Lăcătuș 35, Bărbulescu 46, Majearu 52 (pen)

Steaua win 4-2 on aggregate

Quarter-finals

Steaua București 0-0 Kuusysi 

Kuusysi 0-1 Steaua București

Pițurcă 86

Steaua win 1-0 on aggregate

Semi-finals

Anderlecht 1-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 3-0 Anderlecht  

Pițurcă 4, 71; Balint 23

Steaua win 3-1 on aggregate

Final

Steaua București 0-0 Barcelona (aet)

Steaua win 2-0 on penalties

The ruling regime was quick to take credit for Steaua’s triumph – but Ceaușescu himself just had to knock the new European champions down a peg or two. “There was a reception and Ceaușescu was mingling,” says Duckadam . “That didn’t happen very often, for Ceaușescu to hold receptions like that. It was like we were his friends – but his words weren’t that friendly. He kept his distance. He even told us that if we’d been better prepared, we would have won the game in normal time.”

Cue the clinking of glasses and uncomfortable laughter. But such cold disdain was typical of life behind the Iron Curtain – and typical of the man who would be swept away in a bloody revolution just three years later. “They were the Communist times,” says Duckadam, suddenly transported to a different era. “No further comment…” 

The trail-off in Duckadam’s voice conceals decades of history. And it is history worth clarifying – not least to underline the scale of Steaua’s unlikely triumph. When Duckadam and Co headed to Seville to face the might of Barcelona, they were leaving behind a country still suffering the strictures of a dying system. Shops were empty, meat was a luxury and people queued for long hours to buy essentials such as bread and milk. Meanwhile, electricity was cut off during the day and many lacked heating at home. 

In comparison, Romania’s elite footballers led a relatively privileged existence. Relatively. “Let me tell you a story to help you understand better where we came from,” says Duckadam, thinking back to Steaua’s preparations for that final – and how dependent they were on Ceaușescu’s son Valentin, the club’s unofficial director of football. “Valentin helped us train under floodlights at the country’s biggest stadium. The Communist regime had limitations regarding electricity consumption and only Valentin could help us. We got to have two training sessions on two different evenings. We’d never trained like that before.” 

Their situation barely improved in Seville – and not just because Barcelona were basically playing at home. Firstly, on the night before the final at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, they travelled to Real Betis’s ground for a floodlit training session – only to be told that no one had been informed of their plans. A technician had to be telephoned at home to come in and crank up the lights, and Steaua spent half an hour training in the dark.

On top of that, Steaua were barred from wearing any of the kit they had brought with them. “We have the same colours as Barça: red and blue,” says Duckadam. “Valentin got us some kits from a factory so we wore white and red for the final. We only got our official match kit the night before and we’d never played in those colours. They were the colours of our arch-rivals, Dinamo. The goalkeeper’s shirt was all green but I was very proud – I looked great in it.”

White and red? True, that impromptu kit carried the stigma of capital foes Dinamo București, but this was also the traditional colour scheme of Sevilla FC. Valentin hoped the choice might shift local sympathy towards Steaua, especially as only about 1,000 supporters were allowed to make the trip from Bucharest – and these were no die-hard devotees. 

Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.

While Barcelona warmed up in ignorant bliss, an atmosphere of paranoia swelled around the Steaua camp. The players were shadowed by an officer from Romania’s secret police, who almost had a heart attack courtesy of prodigy Marius Lăcătuș during a walk in Seville. “Come on mate, let’s take a picture together so you can have a memory to take home to your boss,” joked the 22-year-old, hinting at mass defection. “It’s the last time you’ll see us like this…”

Back in Romania, supporters weren’t even sure they could watch the final, despite Steaua’s previous ties having been shown on TV. The club had paid for the broadcast, but other Communist leaders said costs needed to be cut at the state-owned TV service. Locals scrambled for alternatives, rigging homemade antennas to pick up signals from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia – anywhere, basically – before the national broadcaster eventually relented.

Romania’s Communist authorities had clamped down on free movement due to fears of escape, so each potential traveller’s file was carefully scrutinised and threats were issued. As a result, these ‘fans’ were largely recruited from previously verified groups: actors, journalists, engineers or public workers who had applied for visas. Even so, despite being warned of the jail sentence for treason, 35 people requested asylum before and after the game.
An original memento: A ticket from the '86 final

What they got to see was Emeric Ienei’s team surviving a smattering of Barcelona chances for 120 minutes, with Miodrag Belodedici imperious at the back for a side content to smother their opponents. This was no free-flowing classic. The appropriate word might even be ‘dour’ but it did at least yield surprises, not least when Ienei subbed in his assistant coach, 36-year-old Anghel Iordănescu, who hadn’t played competitive football in nearly three years. 

Eyebrows were also raised when Barça boss Terry Venables withdrew key duo Bernd Schuster and Steve Archibald – a tacit admission that his attacking plans were not working. And the game remained goalless until it eventually headed to penalty kicks, setting the stage for Duckadam’s appointment with destiny.

“My dream as a teenager was to play a big game and be the hero, but I didn’t dare to imagine myself in a European Cup final,” he says. “Somehow, penalties were my speciality. I used to stay behind with my colleagues after training and we made bets on penalties. I used to take them myself. But how could I dare picture myself in a European Cup final? And how could I imagine myself winning it on penalties?”

Whatever he once imagined, the 63-year-old has now had almost four decades to reflect on that night – and how another shortcoming in Steaua’s preparations possibly played into his hands. “There were two journalists who tried to get us videos of our opponents’ games. The only match I didn’t see was Barcelona’s 3-0 [semi-final second-leg] win against Göteborg, which ended in a penalty shoot-out. They probably thought I knew how they’d taken their kicks just a few weeks before, but I never had a clue.”

And the crowd of about 70,000, mostly hoping he would fail? “The stadium was massively dominated by Barcelona fans. When our players took their kicks, the crowd made an incredible noise. On the other hand, when Barcelona’s players got close to the ball… the silence of a cathedral. That helped me concentrate. They didn’t want to bother the Barcelona players, but it turns out they helped me more. I refused to watch my team-mates take their kicks. I just laid on my back watching the sky.”

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex”

Had he been looking, Duckadam would have seen Mihail Majearu and László Bölöni fail with Steaua’s first two attempts. Just as well, then, that his mastery of mind games was on a different level. “The first one was the most difficult. It was a matter of chance, inspiration, luck – call it what you want. I made a guess for the shot [José Ramón] Alexanko took. It was the kind of kick a keeper loves to save: not high, not powerful. Had I gone the other way, everyone would have said Alexanko kept his nerve.

“With the second I started applying logic. I put myself in the shooter’s boots. I wasn’t interested that we’d missed our opening penalty. [Ángel] Pedraza was next. I thought about what I would do if I was him. Pedraza hit it hard and it was the most powerful of the four. I went to my right again. He thought I’d change direction. I was very fit. I had strong legs and could push myself to the limit and save it.

“Barcelona’s third was the easiest to stop. Pichi Alonso thought, ‘OK, he went right twice but he won’t push his luck.’ I was there when the ball came and saved it with confidence. And for the final penalty, I played an effective mind game. First, I let Marcos [Alonso] think I was going to my left. Then, as he got closer to the ball, I moved right a bit and finally dived left. He saw me moving and thought I’d keep going right. 

“When I tell the story it seems easy, doesn’t it? But with 70,000 people around you in a European Cup final, it’s a bit more complex.” Undoubtedly so, which may be why Duckadam still remembers every flinch and muscle flex during the 2-0 shoot-out triumph. And why millions of Romanians can still recite the words screamed by the TV commentator when the man in green made his fourth and final save: “Duckadam stops it! We are finalists! We’ve won the cup! The European Cup is coming to Bucharest!”

For the players, this was the time to bask in glory. And not just any old glory: a groundbreaking first for a team from behind the Iron Curtain. But after taking photos with the trophy they were at a loss for what to do next, that old Soviet Bloc mentality stifling their reaction. “We didn’t know how to celebrate,” says Duckadam. “We were in a state of shock. I see teams celebrating nowadays and I think of us. We didn’t know what to do. It hurts me that we didn’t know how to celebrate that huge achievement. 

“We went to the hotel and drank a glass of wine, some champagne and that was pretty much it. The next day, in the city, it was extraordinary. Barcelona were rivals of both Sevilla and Betis, so people kept inviting us to drink beer and give autographs on banknotes and napkins. It was amazing for us, coming from a closed, communist country.”

Back home their supporters were less reserved, with thousands walking about 20km to Otopeni Airport. They were all hoping to greet the returning champions, not knowing of their plans. “The game ended late so we spent one more day in Seville – people were waiting in vain,” says Duckadam. “The next day, on our actual return, there was a military exercise over Italy. Our cabin crew messaged the military guys and asked for a flight lane so we wouldn’t have to land. The captain explained he was there with Duckadam, ‘the hero of the final’, and that made me feel special. The Italians were kind enough to let us to fly home directly.

“When we landed in Bucharest there were tens of thousands waiting for us. All the way to the city, people had torches and fire barrels to make as much light as possible to see us on the bus. I can’t describe those feelings. Everyone was eager to offer us a beer, a glass of wine or something to eat in the city in the days that followed. The feeling was amazing.”

Amazing, but quickly undercut. As if Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reception dig were not enough, the country’s only sports paper, Sportul, carried scant references to the game. More than 90% of its content on 8 May 1986, the day after the final, was dedicated to the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party.

Then came the bonuses, which were classic Eastern Bloc perks: a fleet of second-hand cars belonging to the army, Steaua’s official patrons. “Two months after the final they gave us each an ARO, a Romanian SUV of that time,” says Duckadam. “We got them from the army car park, old and used. Ștefan Iovan, the captain in Seville, had an even bigger surprise: his ARO was welded together from multiple parts. He went mad and asked for another one.”

The players eventually got good prices for their motors from local shepherds but for Duckadam, the brutal comedown was far from over. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his right arm following a fall while fishing, then before long rumours started to circulate that he had actually been shot by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s other son, Nicu, perhaps out of jealousy over his new levels of popularity. Duckadam, however, is insistent that the truth is far more prosaic. 

“I’ve been denying the ‘Nicu shot you’ story for 36 years and counting! Back then, in Bucharest, the hate towards the regime was immense, so if people spoke about something on a bus during the morning, the entire city would be buzzing by evening. Life wasn’t easy, so people used everything to attack the Ceaușescu family. But I wasn’t shot. It was this aneurysm that’s given me problems ever since.”

Mark that down as an understatement. Surgeries saved Duckadam’s life but not his career – and Steaua soon abandoned their hero. “I joined up with the team and travelled to Japan for the Intercontinental Cup. I even dived a bit in the warm-up for the cameras, but I wasn’t in the squad. I could only dive with my left arm. After the game, the doctors told me it was far too dangerous to go on playing. I was immediately kicked out of Steaua and the army. Just months after the final, I was left with nothing.”

Still only 27, Duckadam would never grace European competition again. It was three years before he played any football at all, signing off with a short stint at lower-tier Vagonul Arad. The goalkeeper who had set the most impeccable of standards was flushed away as a one-hit wonder. But times change, regimes change – and perceptions can be corrected. 

“UEFA invited me to present an award to Petr Čech when he was goalkeeper of the year,” says Duckadam, now a TV pundit. “I was also a guest in Seville for a European final. I guess I’ve become one of the city’s small symbols. Now I want to go to Nyon – I’ve heard there’s a big photo of me at UEFA’s headquarters. It’s nice to see I haven’t been forgotten.”

As for whether his shoot-out feat can ever be matched, Duckadam believes it can – though never in the same way. Never with the same meaning. “Why would it be impossible?” he says. “But I think what I did is unique. It was the first of its kind. I was part of an eastern European team. The score after four penalties and 120 minutes of football was still 0-0. That final can never be repeated.” 

History
Road to Seville

First round

Vejle 1-1 Steaua București 

Radu '89

Steaua București 4-1 Vejle 

Pițurcă 8, Bölöni 34, Balint 51, Stoica 74

Steaua win 5-2 on aggregate

Second round

Budapest Honvéd 0-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 4-1 Budapest Honvéd 

Pițurcă 1, Lăcătuș 35, Bărbulescu 46, Majearu 52 (pen)

Steaua win 4-2 on aggregate

Quarter-finals

Steaua București 0-0 Kuusysi 

Kuusysi 0-1 Steaua București

Pițurcă 86

Steaua win 1-0 on aggregate

Semi-finals

Anderlecht 1-0 Steaua București 

Steaua București 3-0 Anderlecht  

Pițurcă 4, 71; Balint 23

Steaua win 3-1 on aggregate

Final

Steaua București 0-0 Barcelona (aet)

Steaua win 2-0 on penalties
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