Born on 5 February 1965 in Săcele, a tiny commune in the Constanta region in the south-east of Romania, Gheorghe Hagi, or “the Maradona of the Carpathians” as he was nicknamed, is well renowned as the best football player in Romanian history. Featuring in three World Cups for his country, playing for both Barcelona and Real Madrid and writing himself into club folklore in the orange-and-red half of Istanbul with Galatasaray, he was one of football’s stars of the 1990s, but it was his impact on the 1980s that really makes his story worth reading.
Hagi began to play football with local youth team Farul Constanta, aged just ten. Spending five years with Farul, the midfielder soon caught the eye of the Romanian Football Federation (FRF), who selected him to move to the capital Bucharest, where he would play for two years with Luceafărul Bucureşti. Although he returned to Constanta, by the age of 18, he was ready to make the step up and soon joined Sportul Studenţesc where he made over 100 appearances.
In four years at Sportul, Hagi scored 58 goals in 108 games which attracted the attention of Romanian superpowers, Steaua Bucharest and the story of his move across the capital is one that sums up the football in the country at the time.
Steaua and huge rivals Dinamo Bucharest were the two dominant sides in Romania. Steaua were ruled by the Romanian Army, while Dinamo were in tow with the Secret Police. Dinamo were in charge of the Liga I for much of the time between the ‘60s and ‘80s, but in 1983, that all changed. Valentin Ceauşescu, son of Romanian dictator Nicolae, took charge of Steaua and the control of Bucharest and indeed Romania, shifted massively in Steaua’s favour. They won the next five league titles as well as four cups, including a new world record of 116 consecutive games without defeat.
As great as the Ceauşescu dictatorship was for the Steaua fans, things weren’t as rosy as they seemed and the winning spell was certainly full of controversy. The squad was exempt from compulsory military service, they won tournaments with what was seen as unfair favouritism from officials and perhaps most bizarrely, they ‘stole’ players from other clubs around the country with methods that nowadays wouldn’t be allowed, and that is the area where Hagi enters the conversation.
Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona on penalties in Seville, but despite having one of the best squads in Europe at the time, Ceauşescu wanted Hagi in and he got him from Sportul on a contract which would last just one game: the European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kyiv.
Steaua got their man and he scored the only goal of the game in Monaco. The contract was over and Hagi was to return to Sportul, but what happened next was far from the case. Due to his winner in that match, Steaua decided they would keep Hagi. They didn’t pay Sportul and with the dictatorship in the country, making a big deal of the move wasn’t in Sportul’s best interests and Hagi remained, with his old club receiving no fee for his services.
That situation could have been a challenging one for the then 22-year-old to deal with, but Hagi didn’t let it affect him and instead produced the best goalscoring form of his career with Steaua. He made almost 100 appearances for the club, scoring 76 goals in that time, as well as winning the Liga I title in all of his three campaigns at the club, two Cupa României’s and of course the European Super Cup, but one trophy that did evade him was the European Cup.
Joining after the Romanians had won the trophy; Hagi did reach the final with the side in 1989, but was unfortunately on the losing side, with Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan beating them in the Camp Nou. Standing at just five-foot-eight-inches tall and with a very slight frame, Hagi didn’t look like a player that would be strong against the tough-tackling defenders of his era, but his performances showed that he was more than capable of doing just that.
He was fantastic at using his body to block defenders from getting to the ball, his close control was exemplary and the way he commanded the middle of the park made it extremely tough for opponents to get near him and easy for him and his teammates to get on the ball in space and cause defences all sorts of bother.
With the performances he was producing for Steaua, it came as no surprise to see that Hagi was attracting attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, with AC Milan and Bayern Munich among his admirers at the time. Unfortunately for the clubs and Hagi, no Romanian players were permitted to leave the country to play football, meaning he had to remain with the champions.
In 1989 however, when Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, were assassinated for “crimes against the state,” with politics taking a back seat, allowing football to take centre stage and footballers to move abroad. Hagi would go on to Real Madrid in Spain’s LaLiga, but before that, he had the small matter of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy.
His international debut though was made way back in 1983, as an 18-year-old while at Sportul Studenţesc, against Norway in Oslo, before scoring his first goal for his country a year later against Northern Ireland. Romania failed to qualify for Mexico ‘86 meaning his move to Steaua was his focus, but in 1990, the Tricolorii made it to Italy, with Hagi at his peak ready to transfer his club form onto a worldwide stage.
Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise as Hagi or Romania would have hoped, suspended for the first game, he was replaced after 55 minutes against Cameroon, before eventually making an impact in game three with his clever backheel playing a part in Gavril Balint’s goal as they made it into the knockout stages. They met the Republic of Ireland who stunned them with a penalty shoot-out win to send the nation from Central Eastern Europe home early.
Hagi spent two years at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu but his spell there didn’t go exactly to plan, with no less than three managers taking charge in his first season in the Spanish capital causing disruption to the midfielder’s performances. He did improve in his second season, finding the net 12 times in LaLiga, but after losing the league title on the last day, he admitted his desire to leave Madrid, just halfway through his contract.
His next destination, Brescia in Serie A, was a strange one, but with Romanian influence in the shape of manager Mircea Lucescu and teammates Florin Raducioiu and Ioan Sabau, Hagi made the switch and starred, scoring 14 goals in 61 appearances across two seasons there. He remained with the club despite their relegation to Serie B but his poor attitude in the second year in Italy didn’t impress the club and he was on his way out, heading to Barcelona, but only after the World Cup in the USA in the summer of 1994.
Heading into the tournament, his mentality was questioned by Lucescu, his Brescia coach saying; “Hagi could have been the best player in the world after Maradona, but he is a great player without a work ethic.”
That World Cup in 1994 is where Hagi made arguably his greatest impact on the football world. An audacious chip giving Romania the lead against Colombia in a 3-1 win. Scoring again in the defeat to Switzerland, Hagi was the star of the show against hosts America as Romania progressed to the next round.
A shock win over Argentina was next, in one of the best games in World Cup history, Hagi scoring once and grabbing two assists as his country came out on top 3-2. Despite Hagi’s huge influence on the national side in that tournament, even he couldn’t stop them from exiting in the quarter-finals to Sweden, losing a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out, but Hagi was named in the Team of the Tournament.
The move to Barcelona was next up as Hagi became one of a handful of players to feature for both sides of the Clásico divide, but like his time in Madrid, he struggled in Catalonia with injuries hampering his two seasons with Barcelona. After leaving Spain once more, Hagi ended his career with five years at Galatasaray where he had one of his best spells at a club, scoring 59 goals in 132 games.
Known as ‘Comandante’ (The Commander) by the Gala fans, Hagi also had two spells as manager of the Süper Lig side and has cemented his place as one of the most popular figures in the club’s history. At international level during that time, he featured in the 1998 World Cup in France before announcing his retirement after the tournament, only to change his mind and return for Euro 2000. He would end his international career in controversy, getting sent off in the quarter-final for two yellow cards, the first after catching Antonio Conte with his studs before receiving a second for a dive.
Nowadays, Hagi is the owner and manager of Viitorul Constanta in his home country. He formed the club himself in 2009 and they began in Liga III, Romania’s third tier but after successful early years, they made it into the top tier, avoiding relegation before Hagi himself took charge of the team in 2014. He has kept the side in Liga I ever since, leading them to a fourth-place finish in 2015/16, earning himself the Romania Coach of the Year Award, and leading the club into Europe for the first time in their history.
The biggest achievement both of the club and Hagi’s managerial history, however, came the following season when a 1-0 win over CFR Cluj secured the league title ahead of his old club Steaua and earned Hagi his second Coach of the Year Award. His son, Ianis, also featured for Viitorul.
Born in Turkey when his father played for Galatasaray, the family moved back home after his dad’s retirement, he soon featured in the Gheorghe Hagi Academy before making his first-team debut as a substitute in 2014, with his father bringing him off the bench. He made the move to Italy when Fiorentina bought him for €2 million before returning for the same fee two years later.
A part of the Cupa României winning squad last season, Ianis now plies his trade in Belgium, having signed a five year deal with Genk.
Despite his tendency to have the odd outburst, as shown by his red card against Italy and his punch on Tony Adams of Arsenal, Hagi was one of the best players of his generation. His neat footwork, clever ability to read the game and fantastic technical expertise made him stand out from the rest.
He was the main name in the Romania side of the ‘80s and ‘90s as they made their impact on the football stage and he received worldwide recognition for his impact on the Romanian game. Although he has made a name in the current era with fantastic achievements in charge of Viitorul, his performances at the likes of Steaua Bucharest and Galatasaray ensured that the legacy of Regele will live on long into the future.