‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at a footballer who won the European cup for his side almost single-handedly, only to get a life of anonymity, impoverishment and ill health in return. we try and unravel the mystery surrounding his sudden rise and an even more abrupt disappearance from the game.
“It’s a great honor for me and I am now at the same table with a famous footballer. Your club should be privileged to have such a legend in leadership. Receive all my respect for a huge name. Indeed, the performance achieved by him in 1986 is formidable and I do not know if it could ever be beaten”
Former Manchester United goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, said this during a dinner, held few days back after Steaua Bucharest’s round of 32 clash with Ajax in the Europa league.
It was a touching moment for Helmuth Duckadam. He hasn’t always received the praise he has deserved. Here is a man whose heroics at Seville in the final of the European Cup (known as the Champions League now) gave the nation one of its proudest moments in its footballing history, and yet he has had to live a big chunk of his life in anonymity, impoverishment and ill health; although the first two have been amended lately, his health is a major cause for concern presently.
The tale of Helmuth Duckadam takes us to Transylvania – the land made famous by Bram Stoker. It was perhaps apt that a man whose career has so many unresolved mysteries, would be associated with a place like Transylvania.
Duckadam was born in Semlac – a commune of Arad County in Romania. He belonged to the ethnic German community known as the Banat Swabians and had a very modest beginning to his life. In fact he had an humble beginning in his footballing career as well. First, he didn’t belong to an age where media hype guarantees every young footballer a measure of fame even with nothing to show for, and secondly because he was a footballer with modest talent to start with.
He started his youth career with local side Semlecana Sermlac, before being signed up by UTA Arad. But his actual rise as a footballer began in 1982 when he received a call-up for the national team and immediately afterwards, was signed by Romanian giants Steaua Bucureşti.
The club was undergoing a transitional phase during that period as the Militarii went four seasons without winning the league. Duckadam didn’t enjoy immediate success at the club; that was until the legendary Romanian manager Emerich Jenei took over during the 1983-84 season. Jenei transformed the squad completely bringing in the likes of Victor Piţurcă (current manager of the Romanian national team), Marius Mihai Lăcătuş and László Bölöni to the club.
It was the start of an era where Steaua București would go on to win five consecutive league titles in one of the most successful period of the club’s history. But history also suggests that the club’s rise during that period coincided with the involvement of Ceaușescu’s family in the management of Steaua București.
The Political Background
Nicolae Ceaușescu is a controversial figure in Romanian history; in fact, he was the last communist leader of the country. He was the head-of-state from 1967 (till 1989) and by most accounts oversaw a ‘brutal and repressive’ regime during that period. It was considered to be the most ‘Stalinist’ regime in the whole of Soviet bloc.
Football, like any other social entity, isn’t immune to political reforms. The communist government in Romania, like most of the countries in Soviet bloc during that period mandated every sports organisation be associated with a governmental institution. Steaua București was associated with the Romanian Army; in fact their stadium Stadionul Ghencea was built in an army base.
The league during most of the 60s, 70s and early 80s was largely dominated by Steaua Bucuresti’s biggest rivals Dinamo Bucuresti. The Câinii roşii won 11 league titles between 1961 and 1984. Stories that emerged during that period suggest that in order to redress the balance Ceaușescu’s son Valentin was appointed at the club. Valentin’s association did alter the balance drastically in the league as Steaua București remained unbeaten for 104 matches in the next five seasons, which incidentally is still the record for the longest unbeaten streak.
But there are differing accounts on how this unbeaten run and five consecutive league titles were achieved. Questions were raised about how the referees influenced the games in favour of Steaua București and even the opposing teams were required to ‘ensure’ that the Militarii got the required results –failure to do so would have invited the wrath of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Interestingly, even the players of Steaua București received special treatments in comparison to players in the rest of the league. Although, football as a profession was not recognized by the regime, Steaua’s players received special ‘incentives’ based on their performances – luxury items which the general masses couldn’t afford during years of financial impoverishment.
The club also signed players from rivals at will. Players were of course attracted towards Steaua due to these ‘incentives’ and also due to the fact that footballers of this club were exempted from the compulsory military duty. Legendary Romanian footballer Gheorghe Hagi was ‘borrowed’ from Sportul Studentesc before the European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kiev. Incidentally, Hagi scored the winner in the final as well.
But it would be an injustice to let controversies and political influence overshadow that great team of Steaua during that period. It is, and will remain for a long time, undoubtedly the best club team in history of Romanian football. Perhaps the unbeaten run was a bit of exaggeration (and possibly rigged), but Steaua might have won those league titles even without the favors from Nicolae Ceaușescu and his family. A fact that was proved by their performance in European competitions during that period. Ceaușescu couldn’t have influenced those games.
Backdrop To The Night In Seville
Despite their dominance in the league during that period, Steaua’s biggest achievement was winning the European Cup, back in the 1985-86 season. It must be pointed that English clubs were banned from participating in European competitions during that period as result of the Heysel disaster. Everton would have represented England if the ban was not if effect.
The European Cup had a knock-out format back then without 32 teams participating in it. Steaua faced Danish side Vejle in the opening round and won 4-1 in aggregate. The Romanian side’s progress in the competition was mostly down to their excellent home form. Steaua were unbeaten at home throughout the competition and scored 11 goals in four legs they played at the Stadionul Ghencea.
Steaua defeated the likes of Budapest Honved, Kuusysi and a very strong Anderlecht side to reach the finals, where their opponents were none other than Barcelona. Although the Catalan side qualified in this competition after winning the league in the 1984-85 season under new manager Terry Venables, in truth it wasn’t one of their strongest teams in their long and illustrious history. They were undergoing a rebuilding phase under new president Josep Lluís Núñez, in fact that was to be their last domestic league triumph in next five seasons.
But they were brilliant in Europe during the 1985-86 campaign, they defeated strong sides like Sparta Prague, Porto, Juventus and Gothenburg. West German international Bernhard “Bernd” Schuster was the star of that Barcelona side and proved to be the fulcrum of that team. Barca were the favourites – at least on paper – to lift the first European Cup in their history.
The final also foregrounded the battle between two political ideologies. While Steaua represented Romania, a country suffering political oppression and authoritarian rule under their communist leader, Barcelona represented a nation, which was gradually embracing and prospering under newfound democracy after the death of nationalist ruler Francisco Franco.
Hero For A Night
The final took place in the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán stadium in Seville, so Barcelona had the added advantage of playing in their country. The Catalan giants dominated possession from early on in the match, but failed to break through a sturdy Steaua defence. The match went into extra-time and neither of the team looked likely to break the deadlock. In truth, the final didn’t live up the expectations and was a dull affair. So it required a penalty shootout to separate the two teams.
Incidentally, Barca won the semi-final against Gothenburg on penalties as well, so one would have thought that Terry Venables’ men would be mentally better prepared than Steaua to win the shootout. But Helmuth Duckadam had other ideas.
Mihail Majearu, who is currently the youth team coach of the Romanian side, was the first person to take the penalty for Steaua but his weak shot was easily saved by Barcelona keeper Urruti. It was just the sign of things to come as the fans were about to witness one of the most dramatic penalty shootouts in the history of the game.
Alexanco stepped up to give Barcelona the lead from the spot, but Duckadam guessed correctly and dived to his right to save the penalty. Incredibly, the next two penalties, Bölöni for Steaua and Pedraza for Barcelona, were also saved by Urruti and Duckadam. It looked as if both the custodians were looking to outdo each other.
But Steaua legend Marius Lăcătuş, who is also the highest goal scorer for the Romanian side in European competitions, gave them the lead with a well-placed shot with Steaua’s third attempt. For the first time Barcelona were behind in the match and they sent Pichi Alonso to bring the score back to parity. But incredibly Duckadam guessed right once again and saved the shot. It was a heartbreak for Pichi Alonso, who was the hero in the semi-final as he scored a wonderful hattrick to almost single-handedly bring Barcelona back into the match which they were trailing 3-0 from the first leg.
Gavril Balint scored from spot as Steaua moved one step closer to lifting the trophy. Only Marcos Alonso Peña stood in their way of achieving glory. For Peña destiny had crafted a wonderful story at that point. As he placed the ball on the spot and walked back to take a breather, he would have thought about his father, Marcos Alonso Imaz. His father had a huge role in Real Madrid first European success in 1955-56, in fact that was the first of the five European cups that Real Madrid would lift in succession. Incredibly, Imaz, who was a defender, has scored only two goals for Real Madrid during his career and his first among those two came in the final of the 1955-56 final against Stade De Reims. Real Madrid were trailing 3-2 in the 67th minute of the final when Imaz scored the equalizer, after that Hector Rial would score the winner as Madrid set out on a journey of European domination for the next five years.
So here was Marcos Alonso Peña carrying Barcelona’s hope of their first European trophy just like his father did for Real Madrid. But fate doesn’t believe in romantic endings.
Duckadam had dived to his right for the first three penalties, perhaps that is what convinced Peña to aim for the left of Duckadam. But the Romanian goalkeeper was up for it and guessed rightly for the fourth time and saved the penalty. It was an unimaginable feat and Duckadam still holds the record for most number of penalties saved in a shootout.
Helmuth Duckadam, a modest man from the borders of Transylvania, has brought the biggest of glories in European football to his nation, and perhaps the phrase “he won it single handedly” was never more apt. Duckadam was given a hero’s welcome back in the country, which they richly deserved. But at that moment, little did the hero of Seville knew that his life was about to change, forever.
The final seemed like a platform from which Duckadam would finally grab a permanent place in the national team. He was just 27-years-old during that time and conceivably had a long and successful career ahead of him. But he disappeared, as abruptly as it sounds. That final was in fact the last match of Duckadam’s Steaua career. No one was conclusive enough to reveal where he went and most importantly why he went.
He would return three years later, as abruptly as he disappeared. He joined lowly second division club Vagonul Arad, but he was only a shadow of his former self. After two purposeless seasons at the club he would retire from football, leaving behind a lot of questions unanswered.
Later it was revealed that Duckadam was diagnosed with aneurysm, a blood disease which can lead to haemorrhage and hence had to quit football. But that didn’t explain his falling off the grid. In Romania, especially during that period, truth was an elusive commodity. Many explanations and conspiracy theories came to the fore about the main reason behind Duckadam’s disappearance.
While the ‘blood disorder problem’ is the most commonly accepted, at least this is what Duckadam revealed himself, there are a few interesting accounts that have surfaced after that. French newspaper L’Equipe reported that Duckadam left the game after a chainsaw accident, whereas the version in UEFA contradicts it completely; the European governing body reported that Duckadam was diagnosed with thrombosis.
In another shocking account, it is believed that Real Madrid gifted Duckadam a Mercedes car as he stopped Barcelona from winning their first European cup. Nicu Ceaușescu, son of Romanian leader Nicolae, ordered Duckadam to hand over the car to him, which the goalkeeper refused to do. Nicu then shot Duckadam’s famous arm ultimately costing the latter his career.
Dragoman Gyorgy, a famous Hungarian historian and author, has stated this in his book The White King –
“Turning on the television, I stumbled on Helmuth Duckadam, the great Romanian goalkeeper. Everybody thought he was dead. During the 1986 (sic) World Cup, Duckadam had stopped four shots on goal and then mysteriously disappeared. It was said that Nicolae Ceausescu had broken the arm, jealous of his popularity. Yet, as if nothing had happened, he returned to television, refusing to say what had happened to him. He finished by telling how the team had to train for a match after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor. The goalkeepers were asked not to touch the ball, as it was thought it could collect hazardous material rolling on the grass. The idea of a goalkeeper trying to avoid the ball seemed utter nonsense, to such an extent that only a child could tell the story like it was no joke. And then an incessant little voice went off in my head.”
The above statement is more than just a myth. People who saw Duckadam in the hospital where he was treated said – “Aneurysm my a**, Nicu Ceausescu shot him“. George Nicolaescu, who was the Gazette journalist in those days, reported this and he later revealed how these reports were repressed, he said-
“We were called at the office of Elena Ceausescu and she even asked us if we know something. I said no. Fact is that we were told not to publish reports on Duckadam which could cause such a stir.”
Helmuth Duckadam never seemed comfortable when journalists asked him about that incident in the past, though he has always dismissed all rumours about Ceausescu attacking him and still continues to do so. The truth might never be revealed, but the fact remains that Duckadam had much more to offer as a footballer and that he didn’t deserve the life he had after his heroics in the final. It was as if fate had played a cruel prank on him – hero on one night and vanquished the next.
We contacted Radu Baicu (Who is a Romanian football expert and has worked as a scout for teams like Bayer Leverkusen and Hannover 96) for his views on the mysteries related to Duckadam.
“As you know, lots of stories circulated before the fall of Ceausescu’s regime and afterwards regarding Duckadam’s retirement, from getting shot or beaten by either Nicu or Valentin (sons of Ceausescu, with the latter praised even now by former Steaua’s players for the care shown in that period), but the truth is that he was suffering from a type of peripheral aneurysm. Two months after the famous final, he felt his right arm getting numb, early in the morning. Consulted quickly a doctor in Arad, leaves for Bucharest where his arm is saved from amputation in the evening of the same day (July 12) after an almost five hours long intervention. He’s had no less than four surgeries since then to take care of the problem.” – Radu Baicu said.
His misery wasn’t limited to the incident/illness which ended his career. Poverty was perhaps the biggest challenge he faced afterwards. The goalkeeper didn’t receive any monetary benefits for his role in winning the European cup and soon financial trouble followed. He lost his house which was ‘reclaimed’ by the previous owners, and although he did get it back after a prolonged case in European parliament, he was broke by then. He failed in his attempt at business (of baby products) and things went so bad that he was forced to sell the famous gloves with which he saved the penalties in the final.
“I accepted an internet offer of a few thousand euros and with all my regret I sold them.” – Duckadam later said.
In 2003, Duckadam won a visa lottery which granted him the permission to shift to United States and went there with his family in order with hopes of starting a new life. But he couldn’t adopt to life in a foreign place and returned to Romania, sadly his wife and daughter never returned with him. They decided to stay back in United States.
Presently his financial condition has improved after being appointed as the president of Steaua București in 2010. He even received the recognition he deserved long back, in 2008, when he was honoured with the Ordinul “Meritul Sportiv” by the president of the country. But his health has deteriorated over time. In September last year he had another surgery on his right arm and his under strict medication. But the first thing he said after his surgery, speaks volumes about the character of this man –
“Tell the fans not to worry I can still give autographs”
One also needs to look at the legacy Duckadam has left behind as a player. Interestingly, many fans and experts rate him as probably the third or fourth best goalkeeper in Steaua’s history, behind the likes of Ion Vionescu, Silviu Lung and Vasile Iordache. Radu Baicu believes it is unfair to compare him with the likes of Vionescu as he didn’t play as many games, but his one performance ‘that’ night would ensure his place among the all-time greats.
“Regarding his quality as a player, Duckadam was a good goalkeeper, but he only got to play 80 games for Steaua, so it might be harsh to put him ahead of goalkeepers like Ion Voinescu who played over a decade for the red and blue outfit, but certainly Duckadam’s feat from the famous final against Barcelona helps him stand out as one of the greats.” – Baicu explained.
Duckadam, who is about to turn 54, has lived a cruelly ‘balanced’ life so far; for every gain, he has lost something on the way – in fact he has lost more than he has gained. Perhaps there is a great irony to the fact that he was born on the 1st of April. But thankfully, there are certain things in life that makes all these commotion worth it. For Duckadam it was that one night at Seville which made up for everything he underwent before and after it. That one night provided him the chance to rise above mediocrity and be a hero and even if he had the opportunity, he probably wouldn’t change anything in how his life has unfolded so far.
“Who knows who decided that I should lose so much? But nobody can take away that incredible night from Seville. To experience such emotions I would be ready to lose everything else all over again. Of course, people are dreaming of fortunes, money, big houses, cars. But my memories will always be my fortune and for this I am the lucky man.” – said Helmuth Duckadam.
Take a bow sir!