When Mircea Lucescu was appointed manager of Shakhtar Donetsk in 2004, few imagined it would last long. He'd been through seven clubs in the previous eight years while Rinat Akhmetov, hiring and firing in the best tradition of oligarch owners everywhere, have been through six coaches in the previous four years. Yet eight years on, Lucescu is still there, eyes still twinkling in his creased face as he explains -- yet again -- that the referee, the football establishment and the whole football universe is conspiring against him.
It's becoming a harder and harder stance to maintain. Lucescu, making best use of Akhmetov's resources, has made Shakhtar the preeminent team in Ukraine, winning six league titles in the past eight years. Few doubt that will soon become seven, with Shakhtar having won 14 straight games at the start of this season to lead the table by 12 points.
Although Lucescu led Shakhtar to the UEFA Cup in 2009, the criticism of him has always been that he has struggled to translate domestic domination into progress in Europe. Shakhtar has never gone beyond the Champions League quarterfinals, and last season it finished at the bottom of an ostensibly kind group with Apoel, Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Porto. There seemed then some pressure, particularly when, in January, Lucescu was involved in a serious car crash that left him with fractured ribs and a lacerated lung. But the Romanian, who turned 67 in July, simply kept going. After all, in a career that at times defied plausibility, he's seen worse.
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A dashing winger, he was Romania's captain at the 1970 World Cup, at 24 the youngest captain in the tournament. "He was a special player," said the coach, Anghel Niculescu. "He wasn't like the others. He read books and was an intellectual person. I saw him as the ideal man to represent us on the pitch."
Yet Lucescu had been rejected by Steaua, the club he supported, and Rapid on the grounds that he was too small, eventually beginning his playing career in Dinamo's youth team in 1963. He had two years on loan in the second division, firstly with Stiinta Bucharest and then with Politehnica, but returned in 1967 to spend 10 seasons at Dinamo. By the time he left, he had won six Romanian league championships and forged a renowned partnership with center forward Florea Dumitrache. "Lucescu was a master," Dumitrache said. "He was one of the best wingers I have ever seen. His crosses were perfect for forwards to head."
Typically, it wasn't football reasons that led Lucescu to leave Bucharest; it was an earthquake. "My wife was very scared, so I asked Dinamo if I could move into the countryside," Lucescu said. They agreed to let him go to the Divizia C side Corvinul Hunedoara. After a year there he was player-manager and, immediately instilling the adventurous style for which he'd become renowned, led the club to two promotions. By 1982 it was playing in the UEFA Cup.
That year he was appointed national coach. Romania hadn't qualified for a major tournament since 1970, but under Lucescu it beat Italy to qualification for Euro 1984. From 1985, he also managed Dinamo, struggling always against a Steaua team whose general manager was Valentin Ceaucescu, the son of the dictator. Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona in the final. Ten days after that game, Dinamo faced Steaua in the league. "Valentin came with a flag to celebrate their success," Lucescu said, "but we won 2-1. Ten days later we played in the final of the Cup, and we won 1-0. They went mad. In the August, Romania played against Austria in the first qualifier for Euro '88, and we won 4-0, but they decided to kick me out. The system was like that -- I had too much popularity. Valentin wanted it to be only him, nobody else."
The following year the rivalry reached even more absurd heights. Steaua met Dinamo in the Cup final, and with a few seconds of normal time remaining and the score 1-1, Steaua's Gavrila Balint had a goal ruled out for offside. Steaua, apparently under instruction from Valentin, stormed off the pitch, at which Dinamo defender Ioan Andone dropped his shorts and waved his penis at the Communist Party box, a protest that cost him a 12-month suspension. With Steaua initially deemed to have forfeited, Dinamo was presented with the trophy.
"We waited for half an hour and then we went home," Lucescu said, "but the next day they took the Cup off us because Ceausescu had decided that Steaua had won. Steaua were a tool of the generals and they were afraid Dinamo were growing too powerful."
He left in 1990, having won the double in his final season, the first after the fall of Ceaucescu, working in Italy with Pisa, Brescia, Internazionale and Reggiana, and then in Turkey with Galatasaray and Besiktas, along with two stints back in Bucharest with Rapid. Everywhere he went, the focus was on youth and high-risk, high-tempo football. "In the late '80s, Dinamo were one of the best teams in Europe," Lucescu said. "We had seven players under 20 years old and seven players in the national team. I realized then that you'll never win with 30-year-olds with no motivation."
The team that beat Chelsea three weeks ago featured three players aged 30 or more -- fullbacks Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat and center back Oleksandr Kucher -- which makes this an old team by Lucescu's standards, but the attacking core is made up of Brazilians in their early 20s. There's the 24-year-old Willian swooping in from the left, the 22-year-old Alex Teixera darting from the right with the 25-year-old Luiz Adriano creating space with his intelligent movement at center forward. And linking them all together is the brilliant 23-year-old Armenian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Older players, Lucescu says, play with fear; experience makes them eschew risk. Most would accept that the best sides have a mix of that caution and the impetuosity of youth. Lucescu, though, has always wanted his sides to play with energy and daring. That can leave them open, but when it works, the results can be breathtaking. And the evidence of a fortnight ago, when Shakhtar pummeled Chelsea in beating it 2-1 in Donetsk, suggests he may, with his older defense, have found the right balance. Wednesday's return fixture at Stamford Bridge, though, is a far stiffer test.