Born on the 5th of 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 would later be nicknamed, is widely recognised as the best footballer in Romanian history. Featuring for his country at three World Cups, 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 leading players during the 1990s, though it was his impact on the 1980s that really makes his story worth reading.
Hagi started out with local youth team Farul Constanta where he would spend five years after joining them aged just ten. The player soon caught the eye of the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) who selected him to move to Bucharest where he would play for two years with Luceafărul Bucureşti, a team set up specifically for the elite youth players around the country to develop together. Hagi returned to Constanta, then at the age of 18 he was deemed ready to play at a higher level back in the capital, so joined Sportul Studenţesc.
Hagi scored 58 goals in 108 games during his four years at Sportul, a record good enough to attract the attention of the dominant club of the era, Steaua Bucharest. The story of his move across the capital is one that sums up the football in the country at the time.
Steaua and their big rivals Dinamo Bucharest were fighting for primacy in the Romanian game. Steaua was run by the Romanian Army, while Dinamo was in tow with the Secret Police. Dinamo had been much the more prominent in Liga I during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but by 1983 that was all changing. Valentin Ceauşescu, son of Romanian dictator Nicolae, took charge of Steaua and the balance of power started to shift strongly in their favour. Steaua would win the next five league titles and add four Cupa României successes. A new world record of 116 games unbeaten would be set.
The Ceauşescu influence was welcomed by the Steaua fans and the army generals, but things weren’t so rosy for the rest of the clubs who had to play by a different set of rules. The most contentious issue was Steaua’s right to ‘steal’ players from other clubs around the country under the pretext that the individuals would serve their national service there. Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, beating Barcelona on penalties in Seville, but despite the fine team already in place, Nicolae Ceauşescu wanted Hagi and he signed from Sportul on a contract which would last just one game: the European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kyiv.
Hagi scored the only goal of the game in Monaco, the mini-contract was served and Hagi was due to return to Sportul. Steaua had different ideas: such was the player’s potential that they decided he would stay with them and no recompense was due to his former club because of the supposed amateur nature of the Romanian game. 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 and scored 76 goals, winning the Liga I title in all of his three campaigns at the club, a further two Cupa României successes and of course the European Super Cup.
The one trophy of note that did evade him was the European Cup. Hagi did reach the final with Steaua in 1989 but finished on the losing side against Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side. Standing at just five-foot-eight-inches tall and with a very slight frame, Hagi didn’t look like a player who would stand strong against the tough-tackling defenders of his era, but his performances showed that he was more than capable of holding his own.
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 – but 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 that Hagi began attracting attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, with AC Milan and Bayern Munich among his more prominent admirers at the time. No Romanian players were permitted officially to leave the country to play football (though many were defecting unofficially by this stage) meaning he had to remain with the perpetual Romanian champions.
The 1989 Revolution which saw Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena executed for “crimes against the state,” brought liberalisation and one of the benefits for footballers was the right to move to the west to continue their careers. Hagi would join Real Madrid in Spain, but before that was the small matter of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Hagi’s international debut had come back in 1983 as an 18-year-old against Norway in Oslo, and his first goal for his country followed a year later against Northern Ireland. Romania failed to qualify for Mexico ‘86, but in 1990 the Tricolorii did make it to Italy and Hagi was ready to demonstrate his club form on a worldwide stage.
Unfortunately, the tournament didn’t materialise as Hagi or Romania might have hoped. Suspended for the first game, he was replaced after just 55 minutes against Cameroon in the second before eventually making an impact in game three – his clever backheel playing a part in Gavril Balint’s goal as Romania qualified for the knockout stages. There they met the Republic of Ireland who stunned them with a penalty shoot-out win to end their participation early.
Hagi spent two years at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, although his time there didn’t go exactly to plan. Constant change with three different managers in charge during his debut season in the Spanish capital inhibited his performances. He did improve in his second season, finding the net 12 times in La Liga, but Madrid lost the league title on the last day and the Romanian admitted his desire to leave the club just halfway into his contract.
His next destination was Brescia in Serie A, a seemingly strange choice but a place with a strong Romanian influence in the shape of manager Mircea Lucescu and teammates Florin Raducioiu and Ioan Sabau. Hagi was the undoubted star and scored 14 goals in 61 appearances across two seasons there. He remained with the club despite relegation to Serie B, but his poor attitude in his second season there didn’t impress the club and he was on his way out, 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 coach at Brescia, 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 was a coming of age for Hagi and where he made arguably his greatest impact on the football world. An audacious chip gave 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 the hosts USA as Romania progressed to the next round.
A shock 3-2 win over Argentina came next in one of the best games in World Cup history, with Hagi scoring once and grabbing two assists. Despite Hagi’s huge influence, he couldn’t stop them from exiting in the quarter-finals to Sweden after the loss of a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out. Being named in the FIFA Team of the Tournament was scant compensation.
With the move to Barcelona, 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 there. After departing Spain once more, Hagi ended his career with a five-year spell at Galatasaray where he had one of his most successful spells scoring 59 goals in 132 games.
Known as ‘Comandante’ (The Commander) by the Gala fans, Hagi also spent two spells as manager of the Süper Lig side and cemented his place as one of the most popular figures in the club’s history. At international level he featured in a third World Cup in France 1998 World Cup in France before announcing his retirement after the tournament, only to change his mind and return for Euro 2000. His international career ended in controversy when he was sent off in the quarter-final against Italy for two yellow cards, the first for catching Antonio Conte with his studs and the second for a dive.
Despite his tendency towards violent outburst, as shown by his red card against Italy during Euro 2000 or that famous punch on Tony Adams of Arsenal, Hagi was one of the standout players of his generation with his neat footwork, clever ability to read the game and fantastic technical expertise.
Nowadays Hagi is the owner and manager of Viitorul Constanta in his home country. He formed the club himself in 2009 and they began their journey in Liga III, Romania’s third tier, before rapidly making their way to the top flight and establishing themselves there with Hagi himself taking charge of the team in 2014. He led them to a fourth-place finish in 2015/16 with a first European qualification, earning himself the Romania Coach of the Year Award for his achievements.
The biggest success of both the club and Hagi’s managerial history came the following season when a 1-0 win over CFR Cluj secured the league title ahead of his old club Steaua. This earned Hagi his second Coach of the Year Award and keeping the success in the family was his son, Ianis, who broke into the Viitorul first team that season.