By Liviu Bird
As with most games around the globe, and certainly ones in Eastern Europe, the history and politics behind Romania’s Eternal Derby cannot be separated from what happens on the field.
In the communist days, the matchup essentially pitted the army’s team (Steaua Bucharest) against the secret police (Dinamo Bucharest). Complicating the matter was dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s son, Valentin, who became Steaua’s unofficial president three years before they won the 1986 European Cup.
The exact role Valentin played in the team’s conquest of Europe is uncertain, shrouded in as much mystery as Nicolae would have wanted for his political matters during his regime. Gheorghe Hagi, Romania’s most prominent player who has been dubbed “the Maradona of the Carpathians,” was the first Romanian player to drive a Mercedes under communist rule. That was after Steaua took him from Sportul Studențesc without any offer of compensation for the transfer.
Dinamo were the original top dogs (pun intended, as their team nickname translates as “the red dogs”) in Romanian soccer, winning four league titles in the 1970s before the Ceaușescus intervened. The balance of power shifted decidedly in the army team’s favor in the early ’80s, although not always by honest methods.
Steaua won the Romanian Cup final in 1988 under unashamedly corrupt circumstances. After Hagi had a 90th-minute winner called offside, the team walked off the field in protest. Under the competition’s rules, Dinamo was awarded the trophy despite a 1-1 draw. Later, the Romanian Football Federation declared the match a 2-1 win for Steaua.
And yet, Steaua’s players from that time vociferously insist they received no direct assistance.
This was a time when matches were fixed on a weekly basis, referees were assumed to be corrupt, and opposing teams knew the unwritten rules. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s hometown club of FC Olt Scorniceşti was promoted to the Second Division after winning the final match of its 1977-78 season, 18-0, over Electrodul Slatina.
My father, in the country where he would meet his wife and my mother, went to watch Dinamo play Universitatea Cluj in 1988, which the Bucharest club won. He told me Dinamo’s players walked in two goals unopposed shortly after kickoff, at which point the Dinamo manager emerged from the bench and signaled to everybody on the field, in plain sight of all fans in attendance, that two goals were sufficient.
From that point on, neither team managed to score in what seemed to be a fairly contested match. But those first two goals were anything but fair.
Since the Romanian revolution in 1989 that culminated in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s execution on Christmas Day, Steaua and Dinamo have won 16 top-division titles, 12 Romanian Cups, and eight Supercups between them. Their domination of Liga I has been broken just briefly enough for Universitatea Craiova, CFR Cluj, Unirea Urziceni, and Oțelul Galați to win once each, with Rapid Bucharest taking the league twice.
Every other club in the country is still struggling to catch up to Steaua and Dinamo. Steaua’s former corrupt government assistance has been replaced with Gigi Becali, currently in jail for three years for his shady land swaps as administrator of public property land in the town of Voluntari.
On the field, Dinamo have lagged since the Ceaușescus intervened. They haven’t finished above fifth place since 2008-09, while Steaua have won the last two league titles and qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage this season for the first time since the same season.
Steaua manager Laurențiu Reghecampf recently shared a meme photo on his public Facebook page that depicts a young boy asking his father, “Dad, what’s the Champions League?” The father responds, “I don’t know, son. We support Dinamo.”
The derby itself sits in stalemate, as each club has 54 wins (such as they are) across domestic league and cup competitions. Steaua won the first leg this season, 2-1 on Aug. 11 in Stadionul Dinamo. Steaua are three points clear at the top of the table, with Dinamo once again floundering in fifth.
That hasn’t dampened Dinamo legend Ionel Dănciulescu’s spirit for the impending clash. He spent 15 seasons at Dinamo, over three separate spells, and won the 2004 Romanian Footballer of the Year award with the club. (Never mind the five years he also played for Steaua.)
“Let’s show these guys what Dinamo means,” he said in a club YouTube video (above) to promote the game.
At the same time, Espanyol winger and former Dinamo player Gabriel Torje has a more realistic approach to the derby.
“Now, there’s a difference between the two teams,” he told DigiSport, before reminding viewers that he didn’t lose to Steaua in four seasons. “I hope Dinamo can save face because there are a lot of young players on the team, and the pressure could cause them problems.”
Steaua hosts Dinamo on Saturday at 9 p.m. local/2 p.m. Eastern Time.