How Ienei shook the football world with Steaua

As Emerich Ienei celebrates his 80th birthday, Paul-Daniel Zaharia pays tribute to the man who steered Steaua Bucureşti to an unforgettable European Cup triumph in 1986.

Emeric Ienei guided Steaua to European Cup glory in 1986
Emeric Ienei guided Steaua to European Cup glory in 1986 ©Getty Images

The football map was redrawn in 1986 when Emerich Ienei led Steaua Bucureşti to a shock European Cup final victory against Barcelona, the Romanian side becoming the first from eastern Europe to lift the trophy. As the elegant coach celebrates his 80th birthday, UEFA.com's Paul-Daniel Zaharia pays tribute.

Building the team
A successful Steaua midfielder from 1957-59, Ienei took charge of the Militarii for a third time in October 1984 – just four months after his previous spell ended – and found a side that had lost its way.

Emerich Ienei (right) watches the 1986 final
Emerich Ienei (right) watches the 1986 final©Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Without a trophy since 1978, the club were desperate to bounce back, and already had key elements of the team that would make history – the likes of Ștefan Iovan, Miodrag Belodedici, Victor Pițurcă, Marius Lăcătuș and Helmut Duckadam. However, it was Ienei's collaborative approach that forged them into a fearsome unit.

"Respect was a key word for me," he says. "I always said that players are human beings and deserve to be listened to. Criticism was always constructive, while respect had to be mutual."

He also knew when to go with his instincts. "When Ienei came to Steaua, Ștefan Iovan was a central defender, but he used him as right-back and was proved right," adds Pițurcă. "Ienei also told me – and at first I was a little bit upset about it – that I played too selfishly. But he knew how to talk to me, telling me I had good qualities and that we all had to learn to play as a team as soon as possible."

Steaua line up ahead of the 1986 final
Steaua line up ahead of the 1986 final©Bob Thomas/Getty Images

European run
Pace and one-touch football were crucial to Ienei's philosophy, and success followed almost as quickly as his team played – a style which earned them the nickname 'The Speedies'. Steaua booked their European Cup spot by recapturing the Romanian title in 1984/85, and eased past Denmark's VB and Honvéd before edging Finnish side Lahti 1-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

That set up a last-four meeting with 1982/83 UEFA Cup winners Anderlecht, who were dispatched with the help of a Pițurcă double in the return leg. "Sometimes we played perfect one-touch football," recalls the forward. "The fact that we eliminated Anderlecht, one of Europe's biggest teams at that time, beating them 3-0 in Bucharest, speaks for itself."

Duckadam on Steaua's penalty success
Duckadam on Steaua's penalty success

The final
A greater test lay ahead as Steaua were pitted against Barcelona in the Seville final, with few giving them any hope. "People told us we didn't have a chance, but we weren't scared at all because we were a team with real personality," explains Iovan.

That solidarity was palpable as Ienei's charges neutralised the Blaugrana and ultimately took the game to penalties. Team spirit had taken them to the decider, but it was individual brilliance that ultimately prevailed, goalkeeper Duckadam saving all four Barcelona spot kicks to seal an unlikely triumph.

"I had the extraordinary chance to have fantastic players, with outstanding psychological and technical skills," says Ienei. "Nothing could have been achieved without them. They were very clever players, who immediately understood what I told them and the need to have pride."

Emerich Ienei lifts the trophy
Emerich Ienei lifts the trophy©Getty Images

The aftermath
Before the euphoria of Steaua's victory had subsided, Ienei was appointed joint coach of Romania alongside Mircea Lucescu. He eventually assumed sole command and became the first coach to take Romania through a group stage at a major final tournament, steering them to the last 16 at the 1990 FIFA World Cup – and later returning to oversee a quarter-final finish at UEFA EURO 2000 – but he kept a close eye on the Steaua team he had set in motion.

The Militarii went on to win five consecutive Romanian titles, going a European-record 104 league games unbeaten between 1986 and 1989, and continued to be a force in Europe. "Everybody would say the European Cup was our biggest achievement, but it's something much more important that made me happy," says Ienei, who returned for three more Steaua stints in the 1990s.

"Steaua reached another European Cup semi-final [in 1988] and a final [in 1989], which means we all did a very good job and that Steaua were a top side over the long term, not just for one season."

They say …
"He always told me to play in simply, with a maximum of two touches. I was young and I didn't pay too much attention, but I soon realised how right he was. It was such a pleasure to get close to him."
Miodrag Belodedici, former Steaua defender

Miodrag Belodedici signs autographs
Miodrag Belodedici signs autographs©Sportsfile

"He was a master of elegance in everything he did, including the way he spoke and dressed, which also inspired me. For me, he is the best coach in the history of Romanian football – a man with a special eye for players."
Victor Pițurcă, former Steaua forward

"His main strength was his diplomacy and how he managed a dressing room with so many big-name players. He never had arguments. On the tactical side, he did things which 70% of the big teams now do."
Ștefan Iovan, former Steaua captain

He says …
"Why do some coaches say that players have to die on the pitch? It's totally wrong. They have to be alive in order to play and perform."

"Always keep the ball rolling. The ball always has to do the running, because the ball never sweats and never gets tired."

"Football is not just about aggression – it's also about style. And it's the style that attracts spectators."

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