Steaua Bucharest bring a 3-0 first leg lead to Lanarkshire
By Stevie Miller
It's a long way from being champions of Europe to the Excelsior Stadium in Airdrie.
Amidst all the wailing and grinding of teeth for the state of the game in Scotland, we should perhaps spare a thought for Motherwell's continental opponents Steaua Bucharest.
The Romanian domestic game has declined in stature over the past 20 years as players and coaches have headed west amidst struggles for money and allegations of corruption.
Legendary goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam became the 'Hero of Seville' for saving four penalties after a dull 1986 European Cup final with Barcelona in the Spanish city, but since those heady days the club has fallen into decline, with last season's sixth-place finish the worst since 1982.
The club was born in 1947, going through a series of acronymic names, before settling on Steaua in 1961. Set up as the vehicle of the powerful Romanian military, Steaua enjoyed a unique way of attracting young players throughout the Communist era; playing for the club meant no national service.
The Army Men did not have it all their own way however, as they were matched almost title-for-title by the Interior Ministry side Dinamo Bucharest.
Without foreign referees Unirea would never have won the title
Dan Petrescu Unirea Urziceni manager
This was no cosy duopoly however, as the on-field rivalry mirrored a bitter dispute between the army and the secret police, the dreaded Securitate - the power behind Dinamo.
The rivalry grew so intense that throughout the 1980s the secret police bugged Steaua's offices and routinely obstructed transfers, despite the fact Steaua's then president was no less than Valentin Ceacescu - son of feared dictator Nicolai.
The Revolution of 1989 brought changes to Romanian football - Steaua's star changed from red to yellow - but the two great Bucharest rivals retained their grip on the title.
Only four of the post-Ceaucescu league titles have gone to clubs outside of Steaua and Dinamo.
Many things in fact remained all too familiar, as the nation's game continued to suffer from allegations of corruption.
Throughout the nineties a loose coalition of clubs - known as the Cooperativa - is alleged to have exchanged home victories with one another to prevent any member team being relegated.
In the late 1990s Steaua was taken over by controversial right-wing politician Gigi Becali, known for foul-mouthed tirades and threats to journalists.
Steaua Bucharest were the champions of Europe in 1986
While the arrival of the controversial Becali - who banned Queen music from the stadium due to his opposition to homosexuality - on-field results improved for Steaua, with a Uefa Cup semi-final place in 2006.
However, a string of unpopular decisions, most notably forcing out club legend Gheorghe Hagi as manager after only four months, has led to the fans being implacably opposed to Becali's regime.
At present, Becali has no official link with the club, although many of the key office holders are linked to him.
However, the power structure has changed in the past two seasons, with first CFR Cluj and then Unirea Urziceni lifting the Liga 1 title.
The suspicion had lingered that success for the capital giants had not always come from fair means and, after a series of corruption investigations and refereeing scandals, the Romanian top-flight brought in foreign match officials.
This was seen as a critical move by many within the game, including Urziceni's coach, former Chelsea defender, Dan Petrescu.
"There is a god of soccer who brought foreign referees to our championship. Without foreign referees Unirea would never have won the title," he said.
This season, both Steaua and Dinamo have new coaches and, with Unirea, Cluj and last season's runners-up Timisoara all looking strong in the cleaned up league, the pressure is on for the country's big two to prove they can cut it without the hint of official assistance.
For Becali, facing major unrest among supporters (3,000 recently marched in a protest calling on him to quit), this season is crucial. Perhaps for Romanian football itself it is even more so.
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