May 7, 1986 - Steaua Bucharest 0-0 Barcelona, (Steaua won 2-0 on penalties). Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Seville.
Upon completing David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round and Jonathan Wilson's Behind the Curtain (both exceptional reads) I have come to learn that the history of post-war eastern European football can only be described as a complete madhouse. A madhouse where government manufactured famine and tactical innovation run side-by-side, where rampant nationalism was manifested best in the form of hooliganism, and where the iron fist of many a dictator would directly contribute to the rise and fall of some of football's finest teams.
This last point is perhaps no more evident than with Steaua Bucharest, a side which thanks to the influences of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would conquer the footballing world in May 1986.
Ceausescu was an utterly loathsome figure. Following the death of his predecessor Gheorge Gheroghiu-Dej in 1965, who had ruled Romania since the end of the Second World War, Ceausescu proceeded with a plan of rampant industrialisation as he sought to turn Romania from one of most rural and agrarian Eastern Bloc nations into an economic superpower.
But his rule eventually became marked by severe and brutal oppression in just about every walk of civilian life.
Having been inspired by a visit to Kim-Il Sung in 1971 Ceausescu subsequently created a cult of personality around himself and his wife Elena, which, according to New York Times reporter David Binder "surpassed those of Russia's Stalin, China's Mao, or Yugoslavia's Tito". He eventually assumed total power from the rest of Romania's state council in 1974 and began to embark on a program of urban systemisation, which included policies such as banning contraception and abortion, and most horrifically exporting almost all of Romania's grain reserves, which in turned led to levels of poverty and hunger not seen in Eastern Europe since the days of Stalin.
Romanian football, however, prospered during such an oppressive time, but it was not without the help of Ceausescu's regime. Ceausescu himself had no interest in the sport, but realising the importance it held in the nation's heart he promptly went about blatantly fixing the results of his home town club FC Olt Scornicesti so they could achieve promotion to the first division and meanwhile, he had his secret police, called the Securitate take charge of Dinamo Bucharest.
Nicolae Ceausescu pictured just one month before he was executed by a firing squad after a military coup
The Securitate, which were of a particularly brutal and sadistic disposition, even by Eastern European standards, watched over the prospering of Dinamo Bucharest during the 70s and 80s. But Dinamo were never able to challenge Western Europe on the pitch and the tide turned in 1983 when Dinamo's biggest rivals, Steaua Bucharest, a club controlled primarily by the Romanian army appointed Valentin Ceausescu, Nicolae's son, as general manager.
Valentin proceeded to commercialise Steaua by signing sponsorship details with both Ford and FIAT. Slowly, and with the backing of his father's regime, and the support of a referee here and there Steaua wrestled Romanian footballing power away from Dinamo, their favour with the regime being no more apparent than in the 1988 Romanian Cup final when both rivals met.
After a potentially winning goal for Steaua in the last minute had been ruled out for offside Valentin ordered the players to abandon the match in protest, sparking an altogether bizarre series of events over the next 24 hours. First, Dinamo defender Ioan Andone took off his shorts and waved his genitals in the direction of Valentin's box. Then the referee presented Dinamo with the trophy in the dressing room before Valentin and Nicolae went on national TV the next morning saying that the goal will stand and Steaua were the winners of the cup. Thankfully, Steaua and Dinamo have since denounced that entire event and no champion currently exists for the 1988 Romanian Cup.
However, Valentin's influence on referees and on Steaua in general had no bearing on the exploits of Steaua's European Cup winning side of 1986.
Free from the meddling of their mentalist dictator and his son for Europe's elite competition in 85/86, Steaua played with a aura of freedom and confidence, dispatching Denmark's Vejle Boldklub in the first round before beating Budapest Honved, Cypriot minnows FC Lahti, and Anderlecht in the next three rounds. before lining up to face the might of Barcelona, managed at the time by England's very own Terry Venables.
The fact that Steaua had an easier route to the final was deemed irrelevant by just about every fan present at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville that day. The military, political, and economical disparity between East and West had become all too apparent by 1986, and the same sentiment was expected to translate to the football pitch.
Barcelona were essentially playing at home in front of 70,000 fans, only 1,000 of which were specifically chosen representatives of either Steaua or Ceausescu's communist party. But as the game dragged on with each Barcelona attack being stifled by Steaua's well-drilled defensive line people began to suddenly see Steaua as the real deal.
After 120 minutes this team of 11 Romanians, all of whom very few football fans had ever heard of, had muffled a Barcelona side containing many regular Spanish internationals along with legendary German midfielder Bernd Schuster and Scottish striker Steve Archibald.
But of those 11 Steaua players only one name is remembered today, that of their goalkeeper - Helmuth Duckadam.
After two hours of terribly boring football Steaua and Barcelona lined up for only the second penalty shootout in a European Cup final. What followed is surely the most remarkable shootout in European football history.
Steaua's Mihail Majearu went first and tamely hit his penalty straight at Barca keeper Urruti. Then Barcelona captain Jose Alexanko saw his spot-kick brilliantly saved by Duckadum. Steaua then missed again, Laszlo Boloni's tame penalty hit into the lap of Urriti.
But Duckadam was inspired, diving to his right to save Barca's next penalty. Steaua's Marius Lacatus then stepped up and smashed his shot off the underside of the bar and into the roof of the net. Barca's Pichi Alonso was next, but Duckadam dived to the right for a third time in a row, knocking the ball past the post. Gabi Balint then made it 2-0 to Steaua to put Barcelona on the precipice.
Barca's winger Marcos slowly walked to the spot with all the enthusiasm of a man walking to the guillotine. He faced down Duckadam, his metaphorical executioner, and hit one of the worst penalties I've ever seen straight at the Romanian.
Duckadam, who sported a moustache to rival Bruce Grobbelaar, had faced four penalties and saved all four. No goalkeeper before or since has ever saved four penalties in the final of any of football's major tournaments.
Duckadam became immediately known as 'The Hero of Saville' and back in Bucharest 30,000 fans took to the streets in celebration before marching to the airport to greet their heroes the following morning. In the words of David Goldblatt it was "the single greatest outpouring of emotion in Romania since the Second World War".
During a time when opposing the rule of Ceausescu could earn one the death penalty football remained one of the only ways the average Romanian could maintain a sense of individuality. Even the army and the Securitate, having been forced to work together could not prevent the march of Steaua fans to the airport the next day.
Steaua's incredible victory was two-fold in its importance. First, it was the catalyst for an unprecedented 104-game unbeaten run in the Romanian league that Steaua would embark upon over the course of the next three years, which also saw the emergence of Romania's greatest ever talent in Gheorghe Hagi who led Steaua to one more appearance in a European Cup final in 1989, where Arrigo Sacchi's great AC Milan were simply too good.
Secondly, and far more importantly, the nationalist sentiment created by Steaua's triumph in 86 leant more to the side of revolution rather than in support of Ceausescu, as in the grand scheme of things the Romanian people realised football was largely irrelevant compared to finding something to eat for dinner. And three-and-a-half years after the greatest moment in Romanian footballing history, Communist Europe was being dismantled, Bucharest was in flames, and Ceausescu and wife were executed on Christmas day 1989.
Hagi continued entertaining millions and Romania were the most exciting team at USA 94, but as the Berlin wall came crumbling down, so too did Steaua, perhaps Romania's solitary beacon of success amidst Ceausescu's reign.
Nevertheless, the achievements of Duckadam and his 10 teammates remain as the European Cup's greatest underdog story.