In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Nick Ames goes to Romania to experience the Bucharest derby between Dinamo and Steaua.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- In a hotel bar on the southern outskirts of the city, the words tumble from Dinamo Bucharest executive director Ionel Danciulescu's mouth as the memories reassert themselves of his playing days.
"2008. That was the one," Danciulescu says. "We were third or fourth in the table, two games to go. Steaua were at our stadium; they win and they virtually win the title. Their owner, Gigi Becali, kept saying that they would be bringing champagne, coming to drink, to celebrate, to triumph.
"I couldn't sleep, not for several nights. The pressure, from myself and from outside, was unbearable. Going round my mind was the thought that it just couldn't be possible for Steaua to win the league on our pitch. I thought of our supporters and then I thought, too, of the Steaua coach, Marius Lacatus, who is godfather to my daughter. Put yourself in my position! I lay there, awake, for hours. 'What's going to happen? What will we do? We have to win, I have to score.'
"The game came and went so quickly. I won a penalty in the first half and my friend, Florin Bratu, scored the first goal. In the second half, my wishes came true and I scored for 2-0. It finished 2-1. At the end, I just lay back and could only feel one thing: 'I am alive! I am alive!'"
JUST OUTSIDE the Palace of the National Military Circle, one of the neoclassically-influenced buildings that punctuate the walk southward into town down Calea Victoriei, the phone rings. "You are here in Bucharest?" asks a prominent Steaua supporter called Alex. "All good? And you brought your wet London weather with you! But man, I'll tell you something -- you couldn't have picked a worse time to attend our derby. Your timing is awful!"
With three days to go, just 5,000 tickets have been sold for the game, a home fixture for Dinamo but one which will be played at the ultra-modern, 55,000-capacity National Arena. The sense of despondency around the fixture is impossible to shake off, and it is particularly acute now, some 12 hours after Steaua lost a crucial game against their unexpected title rivals, ASA Targu Mures.
That result put the little-known Transylvanian club two points clear at the top of Liga I, a remarkable turnaround in the context of Steaua's 13-point lead at the December break. Dinamo, meanwhile, are seventh and coming off the back of a 3-2 defeat to Pandurii Targu Jiu. To the naked eye alone, this is no time to find the Bucharest derby at its most boisterous.
Without that context, the apathy makes little sense. Wind back to the late 1980s and these are two clubs that inspire a sense of awesome obscurity; behemoths from behind the old Iron Curtain whose success was both fascinating and untouchable.
In 1986, on a famous night in Seville, Steaua defeated Barcelona on penalties to become the first and only Romanian side so far to win the European Cup. The performance of the maverick, mustachioed goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam, who saved four penalties in the shootout, has near-mythical status. Steaua came within a game of repeating their triumph three years later, only to lose 4-0 to AC Milan.
Dinamo, for their part, were beaten by Liverpool in the 1983-84 semifinals and reached the last four of the European Cup Winners' Cup six years later.
While pursuing European success, the rivalry between Steaua and Dinamo was fiercest in Bucharest. In 1985, 120,000 fans are said to have crammed into the national stadium for a derby in which players could barely take throw-ins due to the number of supporters standing around the pitch.
Romanian football was relevant, thriving and self-sustaining; before the fall of communism in 1989, players were not allowed to move abroad until the age of 28 and it meant that clubs such as Steaua and Dinamo could, away from most prying eyes, construct teams of genuine continental pedigree.
Steaua were run by the army; Dinamo by the Securitate, the government's secret police arm. The rivalry was almost stiflingly intense, with both clubs effectively footballs of the political variety, and dirty tricks would often be used by one to unsettle the other.
The domination Dinamo enjoyed in the 1970s, which included four Romanian titles, fell away when Valentin Ceausescu, son of the dictator Nicolae, was appointed Steaua's general manager and pursued a policy of strengthening that saw the club outgrow all around them and become champions of Europe.
Nowadays, state ownership is not permitted by FIFA, and the fall from international significance suffered by both clubs is well captured in the statistic that, since 1990, only once -- when Steaua reached the UEFA Cup semifinals in 2005-06 -- has either come close to challenging for a European trophy.
It has been a slow, painful decline from wider significance for both clubs and particularly Dinamo, who have not won a league title for eight years and have gone nine games without a win against their closest rivals. Recent events have only served to hasten the atrophy.
"It is still a special feeling, this match," says ex-Steaua player and manager-turned-TV pundit Ilie Dumitrescu. "That never disappears. You will feel it in the stadium. But you must understand that 25 years ago life in Romania was a very different story. Before the revolution, people did not have much business -- they always worked for the state and outside of that you could really do three things: go to the theater, go to the movies, go to the football. And football was everything -- the biggest release for the people. Now things are a little different, but the derby is the derby."
THE EVENING IS drawing in, but it is now warm and bright outside, and the bars on the bustling thoroughfare of Lipscani are teeming with local and foreign drinkers. The entrance to one such watering hole is virtually obscured by revelers on its terrace, but there are a few who prefer to sit inside and among them, back toward the shadows, is Alexandru Tofan. "You have come alone?" he asks, checking, but the location suggests that nothing needs to be particularly clandestine about this meeting.
Tofan is one of the leaders of "Peluza Sud," the influential ultras group that colonises the south side of Steaua's Ghencea stadium. He is known to them as "Lecce" and explains that "Peluza Sud," who are responsible for much of the choreography that goes on around Steaua games, have been avoiding games since the turn of the year and have no intention of attending the derby.
"The match is not happening as far as I'm concerned," he says. "No, I really don't care. I'll be doing something totally unrelated and everyone else will too. I am 36 and have been going to games for 30 years. It hurts because I just don't feel the passion anymore. It's like I don't have a team, and there's something missing -- it's like losing someone very close to you. But this game against Dinamo, I don't care about it and won't be watching."
Steaua has become embroiled in a mess that, even by the standards of Romanian football, is almost impossible to unpick. After former Dinamo defender Cosmin Moti denied them in the Champions League playoffs with an implausible pair of penalty shootout saves for Bulgarian side Ludogorets, a troubled start to the season became worse -- much, much worse -- on Dec. 3. That was when the country's Supreme Court ruled that Steaua, who had formally separated from the army in 1999, were to return every symbolic indicator of their identity -- their name, their colours, their crest -- to the defence ministry.
It led, in the short term, to Steaua quite literally becoming a club with no name. When they played a home match against CSMS Iasi four days later, they were obliged to call themselves "Hosts" on the scoreboard and wear plain shirts without crests. The situation eased slightly a month later when Steaua took it upon themselves to unveil a brand new badge simply containing a star and the initials "FCSB," while an accord was reached with the defence ministry that they could resume using the club's name.
Current owner Becali claims he purchased the trappings outright in 2003, when the existing Steaua company was formed, and the badge the army seized last year was, the club contends, created at the same time. The to-and-fro continues in court and the impasse is unlikely to be bridged when the army carries out a planned auction of the badge in the near future. Becali's name reverberates around all sides of the argument and beyond. One of the world's most controversial club owners, he was released on parole from a 3 1/2-year prison sentence just one month before the derby after serving two years for an illegal land exchange deal and, separately, attempting to bribe players from Universitatea Cluj to beat their city rivals CFR Cluj.
Scandals involving Becali also include a three-year suspended prison sentence in 2013 for illegally detaining three men who had allegedly stolen his car. During a long career in politics he has caused consternation with his opposition to sexual minorities and hard-line nationalist views and he has accrued debts to the extent that, in 2005, the National Fiscal Authority attempted to seize his entire fortune.
Based on people I spoke to, there is a school of thought within Steaua that the army's action is simply a predetermined move to flush Becali out of the country's biggest and most famous football institution. While Steaua's very essence appears to be in danger, with the army asking for a vast amount of money to return the old badge, their supporters have decided that this damaging moment also signals a turning point in their own relationship with the club.
"We'll support Steaua in all the other sports -- basketball yes, handball yes -- but not football," Tofan says. "Becali only wants to do things in a particular way -- his way. We have tried for 10 years to encourage the owner and the management to be more professional, but they haven't listened to us and have just behaved like amateurs. It is a one-man show at Steaua, a dictatorship, and now the club has lost everything. We've had enough."
A source inside the club told ESPN FC that Tofan and his fellow supporters are being manipulated by media stories against the club but he insists that the truth is far simpler. "No, no, no. We are not manipulated by anyone," he says. "We don't care about the media or the army. We just care about our team and want it back. We want a club that acts normally. As far as we're concerned, we need to do the right thing and find a solution together with the army guys."
Dumitrescu is disappointed with the ultras' decision to stay away from the game and cites an example from the British Isles as the way in which he would like to see the team supported.
"It's one thing to be angry with a person, but you cannot be angry with a team and the players," he says. "For me, the best example is Glasgow Rangers. They were in the third division, the club totally reformed, but played with a full house every week. These are the people who stay close to the team at every moment and this is my philosophy too. You have to support the team unconditionally; you can't just stay away from the most important games because you are mad at somebody. You have the right to protest, but you must support the team."
However, Tofan insists that "if we go back to the games, change will not happen" and adds that Steaua's struggles since December mean there is a chance Becali could give the club away. The long-term gain would make the short-term gain more bearable, though not entirely.
"Again, don't think that this doesn't hurt. I've been going to watch Steaua since I was six," he says. "My father was a political opponent of Ceausescu and went to jail, but still my mother took me and my siblings along every week. I saw us win the European Cup in 1986. I couldn't sleep for three nights when we lost in 1989. Steaua is part of my life. It's my second home."
STEAUA'S GHENCEA STADIUM is situated to the west of the city centre and, like most of Bucharest's outer reaches, is readily accessible via a straight, sweeping boulevard. Over lunch, winger Adrian Popa says he hopes the ultras change their minds.
"We needed them recently but they didn't come," he says. "This is a problem, and all the players hope it will be sorted out. It is important to us that they come for the derby. It is more difficult for us without the ultras -- they sing and make all the others start to sing, too." Popa is a lifelong Steaua supporter and, despite the significant background noise around the game, he is keen to play up the importance of the occasion that awaits. Old passions still run deep.
"My feelings are the same as anyone else's. We hate Dinamo," he adds. "This is a game you prepare for from the very start of the season. There is extra motivation here -- these are Romania's two best teams of all time, with many championships between them and more fans than anyone else.
"I'll never forget our game against them in May 2013. We had already won the title and thought we'd play some jokes on them. We all grew mustaches -- the players, coaches and staff. It was like a message: 'This is especially for you guys.' We wanted to do something special as champions, perhaps a little bit arrogant too, just as you can be in this situation. Dinamo were scared about the game as we were invincible at that moment. We were so confident at that moment that we could have gone out there and played any team in the world."
A long taxi ride across town allows pause for thought about the volatility of the fixture. Jokes are fine when all is going perfectly, but otherwise the most offhand of comments can land you in trouble. A conversation the previous week with Southampton defender Florin Gardos, who joined the Premier League club from Steaua last summer, comes to mind.
"I remember being asked in an interview what I would choose between a win in a UEFA under-21 playoff against England and a win in the derby, which was five days later," Gardos said. "I said, 'I prefer to win in the playoff, and we'll see what happens after.' So then, one day before my first-ever derby, 50 angry fans came to the training ground to question me. I was only 21 so they forgave me, but this built the pressure up even more before my first big game."
That was in October 2010, and Dinamo have only beaten Steaua once since then, a fact that is not lost on Danciulescu when we meet. The second-highest league goal scorer in Romania's history only finished his playing career two years ago at the end of his third spell with Dinamo. Sandwiched between his first and second was a 3 1/2-year stint at Steaua that lasted from 1998 to 2002, and it just so happened that he couldn't stop scoring against his former employers.
"When I came back to Dinamo I had a big problem with the fans for two years," he says. "I'd played for Steaua, but more than that, I'd scored every time I played against Dinamo. My first derby for Steaua was at Dinamo Stadium, we won 3-1 and I scored. If the supporters could have, I think they'd have killed me. But they had to understand that I was just doing my job."
Danciulescu scored 15 goals the last time Dinamo won the league but, since that 2006-07 season, the club have not come close to equaling the most recent feats of their city rivals, which have seen Steaua win three straight titles. Dinamo have disaffected fans of their own, but there are signs that the ship has at least been steadied under current owner Ionut Negoita, who bought the club in 2013.
There is much work to do, though. Dinamo are seeking to restore former glories on the pitch and, off it, the club's home ground has fallen on hard times. Located behind a large hospital, the Stadionul Dinamo is, in common with many communist-era stadiums, a flattish, no-frills bowl surrounded by an athletics track that leaves around 40 yards of space behind each goal. Behind the north end of the ground is an old team bus with Dinamo insignia that appears to have been left to rust and rot.
There is one pristine part of the stadium. On its exterior, a statue of Catalin Hildan is poised in the motion of picking out a right-footed pass, face looking up alertly. Below it, an inscription finishes with the phrase Unicul Capitan (The Only Captain.) Hildan joined Dinamo at the age of 10 and rose to become captain and a Romania international before he died in 2000, aged just 24, after suffering a cardiac arrest in a friendly with FC Oltenita. The north stand of the club's Dinamo Stadium is now named the "Peluza Catalin Hildan."
"He's here, everywhere, this guy," Danciulescu says. "I want all the players to have his mentality -- fighting, fighting, fighting. What a captain he was, what mentality, what a leader. It is impossible to think that he is not with us. I grew up with him, playing together for Dinamo and in the national team, and I'm finding it difficult to speak about him even now. A game does not go by when the fans don't remember him. For them, he is the one. They want all the players to be like him, but it's impossible. If you lose a challenge, miss a goal, lose the ball, it's fine, you understand, it's football -- but just fight and run like this guy."
AS THE PLAYERS line up for kickoff, the derby scene is a far cry from from May 10, 1997, when Dinamo supporters set drums of gasoline on fire inside the visitors' sector of Ghencea before departing the stadium while their side lost 3-1. Dinamo supporters still celebrate the anniversary of that day, but there appears to be little risk of this particular fixture descending into lawlessness, although a slight delay ensues while firecrackers thrown from the Dinamo end are extinguished outside the penalty area of their own goalkeeper, Traian Marc.
On this game day, the first recognisable face inside the National Arena on game day had been that of Duckadam, who is now Steaua's honorary president. "I'm more nervous in the stands than I ever was as a player," he says, before expressing the hope that a few more people join him.
"We always stand united," Duckadam says. "We know the ultras are not coming anymore, for reasons that only they know, but I'm sure we will be well supported tonight. We are not going to worry about it -- even against Targu Mures on Wednesday night, 20,000 people still came to the game. As long as we have good results I'm sure they will come back and fill the stadium, so let's start in the right way against Dinamo."
As supporters trickle into the impressive, roomy, ultra-modern stadium that hosted the 2012 Europa League final, you find yourself hankering for the more intimidating, severe angles of Ghencea and Dinamo Stadium's remote, crumbling stands. The arena will be nowhere near full, and it becomes quickly apparent that Tofan and his colleagues have stayed true to their word.
Behind the goal to the right, around 1,500 Steaua supporters have converged in near-silence -- no flags, flares, chanting or colours. As their players come across for their warm-up, there is barely a ripple of applause. To the left, the picture is mercifully different as Dinamo's fans, at least, pack their end and imbue it with the spirit of the Peluza Catalin Hildan. Not everyone is content.
"This is no good," grumbles Bobo, an influential Dinamo ultra. "Nobody from Steaua has come. They had to give away 700 free tickets just to get anyone here. No good."
The match gets underway and Steaua are on top quickly. For a new stadium, the acoustics are tremendous, and you are left to wonder how things would sound with full complements of ultras at each end. As it is, Dinamo's supporters create the atmosphere and, as their team sets up to frustrate and counter-attack, the most eye-catching sights see a brooding, dark-clad section of their supporters positioned menacingly close to where Steaua's ultras should have been.
There is no potential for confrontation this evening, though, and the fans content themselves with holding up a series of hand-drawn banners. The first pokes fun at Steaua's awkwardness with the army and the second is more pointedly drawn toward their own club. "Vre Dinamo de altadata, nu fotbalisti fara mentalite," it reads. ("We want the old spirit of Dinamo; these footballers don't have the mentality.")
AFTER A QUIET first half, the atmosphere after the interval feels more tense. It is difficult for a non-native to read the signs but there is a sense of combustibility that had not been present before, and the impression is confirmed when, almost straight after the restart, with Steaua's Lithuanian goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis defending the goal in front of Dinamo's ultras, his penalty area is pelted with fireworks. He appears to be hit by one, clutches his back, and half-turns towards the supporters. Then everything moves quickly. Arlauskis has been hit again and now, head down, he sprints from the area toward the side of the pitch. There is a scuffle, with players from both sides wading in, but it soon cools and ends with both sides being led from the field while fireworks and debris continue to rain from the stand.
The mood in the Dinamo end is loud and buoyant and somebody needs to take a measure of control. A figure in a shirt, jacket and jeans appears on the pitch and walks over toward the front row. It is Danciulescu, the executive director, who has inflamed these supporters before but now has to calm them. He speaks to the ultras' leaders, who are standing to face their peers, and is followed shortly afterward by the one player who has remained outside -- the hugely respected Dinamo captain, Marius Niculae.
It seems to do the trick. Things calm down and the players re-emerge after an 18-minute delay. Arlauskis is among them and his goal is put under pressure by Dinamo for the first time in the game. Have Steaua been cowed by the attack on their goalkeeper? Will things spiral out of control again if they take the lead?
Both questions are answered when, in what is officially the 76th minute, Steaua win a penalty. Nicolae Stanciu converts, the Steaua supporters that are present muster evident enthusiasm for the first time and a small scuffle breaks out somewhere near the VIP area toward their end of the ground.
Three minutes later, the lead is doubled through Stanciu, this time with a lovely right-footed finish from Alexandru Chipciu's centre. Looking at the Dinamo ultras, it is clear the impact Danciulescu and Niculae have had. There is little unrest and, instead, they get behind another strong spell for their team. Niculae himself shoots a golden chance over the bar before Hatem Abd Elhamed plants a bullet header against the frame of the goal.
Later -- in what is chronicled as the 16th minute of added time -- Elhamed does score, crashing in a cutback from the right and, although clearly the inferior team, Dinamo deserve the goal. Now everybody is energised and Dinamo spend four minutes knocking on the door. Wave after wave of red shirts pile forward as crosses are flung in, but Arlauskis and his defence are just about equal to everything, and the final goal of the game is to go the other way.
Steaua substitute George Tucudean, who has had two spells with Dinamo, is fouled in the box by Gordan Bunoza and another replacement, Andrei Prepelita, scores to make it 3-1. The final whistle is blown immediately afterward and, in what almost feels a rite of passage by now, there is another small skirmish among the teams before another burst of celebrations from Steaua's supporters. Their slick, mobile team has kept itself in the title race, although the club's more significant battles are still to be fought away from the pitch, and the gaps in the stands tell a more important tale than the three points.
For Dinamo, another season of mediocrity is assured and another dilution seems to have been applied to a rivalry that has barely resembled a contest for several years. They are used to it by now, and Steaua themselves are accustomed to the feeling that victories, even on this exalted stage, run slightly hollow these days. As decisive an outcome as this has been, there is the curious feeling, as you walk away from the National Arena, that both of these old, proud clubs depart with questions -- basic ones about identity and worth -- weighing on their shoulders that are far heavier than any consequences of what happened in the game.
Photo courtesy: Teodora Maftei.