By Michael Yokhin
What do the only two Chelsea defeats in European competitions under Roberto Di Matteo have in common? The answer is Mircea Lucescu.
The Romanian, who masterminded Shakhtar Donetsk's 2-1 win over the Blues a a fortnight ago, was also the man who brought Diego Simeone to Europe. The Argentine midfielder was Lucescu's first signing for Pisa in 1991, and 'El Cholo’ definitely learned a lot from his first boss in Italy, and those lessons came in useful when his Atletico Madrid side dismantled Chelsea 4-1 in the European Super Cup in August.
Lucescu, meanwhile, now 67, is still going strong after surviving a heart attack and a serious car crash. His career has stretched through five decades and Di Matteo, his opposite number on Wednesday, was just two weeks old when the Romanian was captaining his country at the 1970 World Cup, and swapping shirts with Pele after a 3-2 loss to Brazil.
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Born shortly after the Second World War, Lucescu grew up in poverty, playing football on Bucharest’s streets with a garbage-stuffed sock. The game was his love, but after starting an economics course at university, he was forced to put his playing career on hold and miss training sessions with Dinamo Bucharest. He was subsequently loaned out to a student club which played in the second division, but such was his talent that he received a call-up to the national team, despite playing in the Liga II.
Naturally right-footed, Lucescu debuted for Romania in an unfamiliar left-wing position, and assisted all four goals in a 4-2 win against Switzerland. His leadership qualities were unquestionable, and at 23, he was already his country's captain. He first wore the armband in 1969, and he remained skipper for another 10 years.
After ending his time as a player, Lucescu became his country's coach. He was appointed for the job in 1981 at the age of just 36, after working wonders with the provincial Corvinul Hunedoara. Not only was he player-manager, he also promoted football in the area in every way possible. Lucescu contributed a weekly column in a local newspaper, hosted a radio show, and even wrote the club’s anthem. Some of his friends from the foreign economics faculty worked abroad, and he learned Italian, Spanish and French in order to understand the football magazines they brought him. Under his tutelage, Romania qualified for Euro 1984 at the expense of Italy, drawing with Enzo Bearzot’s world champions in Florence and beating them 1-0 at home.
|Lucescu grew up in poverty, playing street football in Bucharest with a garbage-stuffed sock
Lucescu's career was hugely influenced by Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime. In the 1970s, he was denied the chance to play abroad, despite receiving many lucrative offers, thus remaining unknown to the West. In the 80s, he managed Dinamo Bucharest but remained without any silverware as the league was corrupt and local rivals Steaua - supported by the Ceausescu family - dominated. Only after Ceausescu was overthrown could Dinamo finally win the title in 1990, and then Lucescu was off to Serie A.
The Romanian didn't enjoy huge success in Italy. In fact, he oversaw more relegations than any other coach, dropping to Serie B with Pisa, Brescia (twice) and Reggiana. The most traumatic memories, though, are from his short stay at Inter. Massimo Moratti personally called Lucescu in December 1998 and asked him to replace the popular Gigi Simoni.
It all started positively, led by Ronaldo, Ivan Zamorano and Roberto Baggio, the Nerazzurri scored 20 times in Lucescu’s first four league games at San Siro. In February, however, everything fell apart after Marcello Lippi left Juventus. The press immediately linked him to Inter. Just three months after arriving, Lucescu resigned, and Lippi did indeed take charge of the Nerazzurri that summer.
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Feeling hurt, Lucescu immediately signed for fellow Istanbul outfit Besiktas. Gala fans were incensed, and salt was soon rubbed into their wound. The Eagles won the league in 2003, eight points ahead of their rivals. That year in the Champions League, the Turks claimed a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge, but were ultimately eliminated in the group stage. His Super Lig adventure was soon to end bitterly.
Besiktas were cost the league title by more refereeing controversy. Lucescu resigned, and soon received a lucrative offer from Shakhtar president Rinat Akhmetov, who had been chasing his man for some time. He had finally found a club where stability was the most important thing, and the years of wandering were over.
Before the Lucescu era, Shakhtar had won just one Ukrainian title, and had played second fiddle to Dinamo Kiev. Six championship successes later, and having lifted the last edition of the Uefa Cup in 2009, the Miners are ready to take on the whole of Europe. They reached the Champions League quarter-finals two years ago, and they look even better this time around.
The Ukrainians are on the verge of pulling off a massive shock by eliminating either European champions Chelsea or Juventus, and Wednesday's clash at Stamford Bridge will be crucial to answering the question of whether the Londoners or the Italians will be relegated to the Europa League. What we already know, however, is that Lucescu's name will echo loudly throughout the upper echelons of European football if the Romanian boss can guide the Miners to the latter stages of this season's tournament. It will be long overdue.