Saving grace

Following their UEFA Cup run last season, Sorin Dumitrescu looks back on the finest hour of Steaua Bucharest, and one man in particular

Steaua Bucharest’s run in this season’s UEFA Cup brought the club to international attention for the first time since the 1980s, when they twice reached the final of the European Cup. Their triumph in 1986 against Barcelona was entirely down to one man, goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam, who saved four penalties in Steaua’s 2-0 shootout victory. 

Duckadam was in the news recently when it was revealed that he was unable to afford the equivalent of £100 or so to travel from his home town of Arad to see the UEFA Cup quarter-final against city rivals Rapid. In fact things began to wrong for Duckadam within days of the 1986 final when he was diagnosed with a potentially lethal aneurism in his arm, which was only saved after eight hours’ surgery.

At the time it was rumoured that this injury had been caused by the henchmen of Nicu Ceausescu, the son of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae, who resented the attention Duckadam was receiving. Later, when he had nothing to fear after the 1989 revolution, Duckadam strongly denied the story: “It’s the most stupid thing I heard in my life. I had the pains in my arm some months ago before the final, but didn’t have them checked. People hated Ceausescu so much that they invented incredible stories about him and his family.”

Duckadam was released by Steaua without playing again. He returned to his native village of Semlac and played – at his own risk, doctors told him – for a second-division team, Vagonul. He even made the news again briefly after scoring from a wind-assisted goal-kick. He later did various jobs with the main club in Arad, UTA (champions in the 1970s but these days in the lower leagues), and tried several business ventures, including a baby products shop, without success. He even lost his house five years ago when it was reclaimed by its previous owners, who had left after the post-war Communist takeover, but he finally got the property back after taking his case to the European parliament.

Poverty pushed him to sell the famous gloves from Seville: “I accepted an internet offer of a few thousand euros and with all my regret I sold them.” In 2005 Duckadam entered politics, standing for Arad mayor as a representative of the New Generation Party of Steaua owner Gigi Becali. But having a famous name didn’t help to get him elected. After missing the first Steaua v Rapid UEFA Cup match he promised to travel to Bucharest – “I will keep my money for the second leg and try to be there” – but had to watch on TV.

In 2003 his streak of bad luck seemed at an end when he won the right to residency in the United States in a visa lottery. The Duckadam family set off for Phoenix, Arizona. But after only two years Helmuth decided to return alone: “The American life doesn’t suit me. I never adapted and I decided to come back.” But his wife Ildiko and his daughter Brigitte decided to stay on. Quickly divorced, Helmuth, 47 years old, is now with 29-year-old Alexandra Lincar, a politician in Arad. “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.”

From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month