Eastern European giants Steaua Bucharest are embroiled in a bitter dispute that shows little sign of easing. If anything, the temperature is on the rise.
Steaua were European Cup winners in 1986. Founded in 1947 as an army club in the early days of Romania’s communist regime, for decades their fierce competition with Dinamo Bucharest dominated the country’s football scene.
Now they have a bigger rivalry – one that sprung from within.
Today there are two teams that both lay claim to Steaua’s European Cup final victory over Barcelona, their 21 league titles and record 20 Romanian Cup triumphs between 1947 and 2003.
That has been the case since 2017, a key year in this dramatic story. That season, a team playing in the top flight as Steaua Bucharest was finally compelled by legal action to abandon the name. They became FCSB, and were forced to give up their claim on Steaua’s sparkling past. They still dispute the ruling.
In that same year, a Steaua Bucharest claiming authentic continuity with the great old club founded 75 years ago began a new life in Romania’s fourth division.
Last season, this Steaua were promoted to the second division via a play-off win. Now there is only one league separating them from FCSB, who have tried to sabotage Steaua’s ascent by lending top-flight players to their rivals.
That was a move sanctioned by FCSB’s controversial owner George Becali, a former shepherd who became a property tycoon in the years following communism’s collapse, amassing a fortune estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds. He describes it as “a bit of fun”, adding: “I just wanted to laugh at them.”
He tells BBC Sport: “They have no future. They need to change their structure and they can’t do it. That team is spending state money for nothing. They can’t play professional football.”
What Becali says is not without substance. Steaua are owned by Romania’s Ministry of Defence and under current rules must have at least some private ownership if they are to make the next step in their journey back to the top – although this requirement is likely to face scrutiny in the near future.
They find themselves at a crossroads. But to consider what might come next in this unusual and protracted drama we must first wind back to the dispute’s origins – and a little further still.
This is a story closely linked to Romania’s turbulent exit from the dictatorial rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the communist leader who was executed along with his wife on Christmas Day in 1989.
During the years of Romania’s communist rule, from 1945-1989, Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest dominated the country’s football scene.
They attracted all the best talent because they offered the best living conditions. Players earned more and had access to food resources others could only dream of. They would be promised future financial security through roles in the army or police after retirement.
By the 1980s, both sides began to have continental influence.
In 1983-84, Dinamo made the European Cup semi-finals, losing to eventual champions Liverpool. Two years later, Steaua won the prestigious trophy, beating a Barca managed by Terry Venables on penalties in Seville. In 1989 they reached the final again, only to suffer a 4-0 defeat by an AC Milan side that included Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
Months later, in December 1989, the Romanian revolution left blood on the streets of Bucharest as Ceaușescu’s dictatorship was brought to an end. Society as a whole had to adapt to the new life that followed, and football was no exception. Players were looking for transfers abroad, free to move after decades of restrictions.
State money continued to be injected into Romanian football during the early 1990s, before clubs were asked to find independent ways to support their activities.
In 1998, Steaua made their first steps in this direction, but things did not go according to plan. The new owners were far from successful. The club was deemed a financial black hole and bankruptcy was brought up as a possibility in the media.
Enter George Becali. Inspired by Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan, he wanted to become known worldwide through footballing success. In 2003, he became Steaua’s new owner, or so it seemed.
Over the next 14 years, Becali’s team won five league titles and four times made the Champions League group stage, also reaching the Uefa Cup semi-finals in 2006, losing to Middlesbrough.
But in 2017 came a legal bombshell: the 2003 takeover was deemed invalid. In the eyes of the law, Becali’s club had “no ownership of the Steaua brand”, with courts ruling it still lay with the Ministry of Defence. That’s when the team became FCSB.
Shortly afterwards, the reformed Steaua Bucharest started their new life in the amateur leagues. They played fourth division football for three years before finally getting promoted. Some fans followed them, supporting the idea that Becali never truly owned Steaua. Others backed Becali, claiming he was wronged because of a personal vendetta.
A highly controversial figure, Becali was imprisoned for almost two years between 2013 and 2015 after being found guilty of an illegal land swap deal with none other than the Ministry of Defence. He has made many public statements considered to be homophobic, racist or supportive of conspiracy theories relating to vaccination against coronavirus.
The political party he first led in the mid-2000s was described by the US Department of State as “extreme nationalist” when it adopted a 1930s anti-Semitic slogan in its electoral campaigning.
Becali has often been involved in violent incidents, including a kidnapping for which he received a suspended prison sentence – the victims were said to have stolen his car. Conflicts with supporters have seen him send bodyguards into the stands to fight those who oppose him. He would threaten to cancel the contracts of players he deemed to be underperforming, making detrimental remarks about their lives off the pitch.
For some, his character is a hindrance to FCSB’s progress. Others point to his investment in training facilities, or the transfer fees and high salaries he has bankrolled in outspending rivals. Becali himself also claims to donate millions each year to charitable Orthodox Christian projects, including aid work in Uganda, and has supported state hospitals with equipment worth hundreds of thousands euros.
His confrontational personality is at least partly to blame for the burning of multiple bridges across the divide separating thousands of Steaua fans. He once said, with a big smile on his face, that FCSB stands for ‘Faci Ce Spune Becali’ (Do As Becali Tells You’).
And now he is awaiting a court verdict in another case. The Ministry of Defence has demanded he pay more than £31m as compensation for “illegal use of the Steaua brand”. But he has not given up on the name yet.
“We’ll win one trial after another,” Becali says.
“Honestly, I like the new crest and the new name more. But it matters for the fans, so I believe the courts will do us justice in the end. I am optimistic that the name and all will return to me.”
FCSB at least appear to have numbers on their side. A 2020 survey in Romanian sports paper Gazeta Sporturilor found the majority of Steaua’s historically huge fanbase see FCSB as their club.
Some 40.9% of the country’s football supporters identified as FCSB fans, despite the club not having won a league title since 2015 and last making the group stage of a European competition in 2017-18. Dinamo Bucharest fans accounted for 13.7% and CFR Cluj, aiming for a fifth successive title this season, 7.4%. Only 4.8% said they supported the re-formed Steaua.
Yet FCSB do not fill their stadium. Since 2015 they have played home matches at the National Arena in Bucharest, a 55,000-capacity ground that hosted games at Euro 2020. Last season their average attendance was about 7,500.
Steaua attract crowds of only a couple of thousand to their £80m, brand new 31,000-capacity arena. It was built with state funds on the site of the club’s historic ground in the Ghencea district of Bucharest – where FCSB played until 2015. For that reason, FCSB believe it should be their new home. Both clubs see it as an important symbol of the disputed Steaua identity. It is another battleground between the two rivals, and ultras groups on either side are raising their voices.
“Ghencea is Steaua land,” says a member of Asociatia Stelistilor 1947, a supporters’ trust that backs the Steaua Bucharest reformed in 2017.
“It’s impossible to conceive a deal happening between Steaua and someone we are fighting in court, someone who is to blame for our team going to the fourth tier instead of the European cups.
“FCSB is an imposter club. They tried to illegally assume our trophy record and the Steaua brand – it was proved in court. FCSB, for Steaua’s supporters, reflects a wider problem in Romanian society. They have no principles, no history, no education.”
The opposite view comes from FCSB fan group Peluza Nord (‘North Stand’).
“It’s a certain thing that we’ll play at the new ground in Ghencea,” a Peluza Nord member says. “We are gathering documents, doing what we can as supporters to get the team closer to playing there.
“The Army’s leaders are scared that if we go there, the stands will be full. When that happens, there will no doubt that the people have chosen FCSB as being Steaua.”
Friends who used to play together, including the stars of that 1986 European Cup win, are now divided too – and are deeply pessimistic over the prospect of compromise being reached. Gavril Balint, who scored the winning penalty in the shootout to decide the 1986 final against Barcelona, believes a groundshare could be dangerous.
“To avoid fights and scandals between supporters, it’s best that FCSB don’t go and play there,” he says. “Who knows what will happen in the future? The tension is high between the two sets of fans. They suffer the most, they are divided. Why make them confront each other like that?”
Balint is on the side of Steaua – the team now in the second tier. His former team-mate Helmut Duckadam, the hero goalkeeper of ’86, sides with FCSB.
They do agree on one thing, though.
“I used to believe peace was possible, but not any more,” Duckadam sighs.
Balint adds: “We now have two different clubs. They are in court one against another. I can’t see reconciliation happening. How could it now, after so many steps in the opposite direction?”