July 3, 1994: it’s Romania versus Argentina in the World Cup round of 16. As the teams line up for the anthems in the searing heat of Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, Romania’s players look around at one another, seeking to take confidence from the ability of their team-mates. They like what they see. Never before has a Romanian side been packed with so much talent.

There was Gica Popescu of PSV Eindhoven, Valencia’s Miodrag Belodedici, the two-time European Cup-winner, Florin Răducioiu of AC Milan, Ioan Lupescu of Bayer Leverkusen, Dan Petrescu of Genoa. And their captain, Gheorghe Hagi, of … Brescia, in Italy’s Serie B.

In retrospect, it seems shocking: how did the greatest Romanian player of his generation come to be pootling around in the Italian second division in the prime of his career? To find out, we need to fit a flux capacitor to our trade-unionist granddad’s old Dacia hatchback, set the clock for 1987 and travel back to a time when the Iron Curtain cloaked the misdeeds of Nicolae Ceauşescu in his Socialist Republic of Romania.

While Hagi would be given the nickname “Maradona of the Carpathians” by besotted football writers, Ceauşescu, Romania’s loose cannon of a Cold War-era dictator, bestowed upon himself the title “Genius of the Carpathians”. Away from the prying eyes and ears of the Securitate, Romania’s secret police, Ceauşescu’s people called him something altogether less flattering: Ceasca, meaning “mug”.

Ceauşescu didn’t let that affect him, though. By 1987, he’d been in power for 22 years, during which he’d nurtured a Mao Zedong-style cult of personality. His propaganda was all over television and radio, in theatres and cinemas; his picture hung in every office and school in the land. And, like all good Eastern Bloc dictators, he made sure his tentacles stretched into domestic football.

Ceauşescu himself favoured his hometown team, little FC Olt Scorniceşti, who had developed the happy knack of achieving 18-0 scorelines in crucial end-of-season matches since the dictator came to power. However, Ceauşescu was well aware of the power of football to influence people, and he maintained a presence at the biggest club in the land, Steaua Bucharest. Never one to shy away from a bit of nepotism, Ceauşescu had installed his son Valentin behind the scenes at the club that had started life in 1947 as the footballing wing of Romania’s armed forces.

It was Valentin who put the young Gheorghe Hagi on the European stage, overseeing his transfer to Steaua from lowly Sportul Studenţesc in early 1987 in time for the European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kyiv, though in this instance the word “transfer” might be a misnomer. “Hagi was taken from us and they gave us nothing,” said Mac Popescu, then-president of Sportul. “It was illegal.”

It didn’t matter; in communist Romania, the Ceauşescus could do what they liked. By 1989, at least 27 relatives of the self-styled ‘Great Conductor’ held influential positions in the party and state apparatus. That same year Gheorghe Hagi, now 24, would mark a stellar season for Steaua with an appearance in the European Cup final against AC Milan. His team lost 4-0, but Hagi had become one of European football’s hottest properties as Steaua had rampaged through the previous rounds, scoring a minimum of five aggregate goals per tie.

Offers came from Italy, the preeminent league in Europe at the time, with Serie A giants Juventus and AC Milan looking like they would duke it out for his services. But Hagi wasn’t going anywhere. With the Securitate one of the most notorious secret police in the communist bloc, it was an easy decision. The repercussions could have been grave:

“Every time I went to the West [to play away matches in Europe], I got offers,” said Hagi. “I would have loved to measure myself against players from the West. It would have been easy for me to defect, but I didn’t want to. I’d probably never have seen my family again.”

In return for his loyalty, Hagi had gifts lavished upon him by Ceauşescu Jr. A chauffeur-driven Mercedes and a villa with a swimming pool were just two of the perks that allowed Hagi to feel more equal than others. Meanwhile, Valentin’s old man was busy selling off Romania’s food and fuel in a bid to pay the exorbitant national debt he’d managed to rack up during 24 years of corruption. By December 1989, the Romanian people, starving and cold, had had enough. After a failed attempt to flee the country, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were found guilty of genocide and illegal gathering of wealth at a hastily convened show trial, and were executed on Christmas Day.

For Hagi, as for so many Romanians, a new world opened up. No-one could forbid him from leaving the country in search of a better life. After representing his country at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, he transferred to Real Madrid. Now 25 and in the prime of his career, Hagi seemed to have found a fitting stage to showcase his talents and fulfil his desire to measure himself against the best of the West. Despite his better-than-average lifestyle in Romania, Hagi had retained the guttersnipe attitude that had fired him and his compatriots to European success.

“In the old days, we desperately wanted to beat these kind of players, because we were jealous of them,” said Hagi. “The way they stood there so casually in their new boots and modern football strips while we were wearing old bibs and worn-out slippers.”

But upon walking into the Real Madrid dressing room, Hagi couldn’t sustain the cocky irreverence he had cultivated in his youth. Years of being the biggest fish in Romania’s small pond, sequestered from the “real” football stars of the West, had given him an inferiority complex that left him trembling before world-famous personalities like Emilio Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez.

“I failed,” said Hagi. “Faced with all those superstars, I nearly shat my pants.” After a paltry 14 goals in two seasons – his record with Steaua had been nearly a goal a game – the Maradona of the Carpathians found himself sitting amid elderly retirees by the shores of Lake Garda in Italy, having just signed for Brescia, wondering where it had all gone wrong. On March 20, 1994, three months before Romania’s first game at USA 94, Gheorghe Hagi lined up at Wembley in front of 17,000 spectators for an Anglo-Italian Cup final against a Notts County team featuring guys with surnames like Cherry, Draper and Legg. Redemption must have seemed a long way off.

Having scraped into the ’94 World Cup thanks to a missed penalty by Paul Bodin that lives in infamy amongst Welsh fans, Romania were not fancied to do well. Their group included hosts the United States, a strong Switzerland side and a Colombia team who had completed an era-defining 5-0 away drubbing of Argentina on their way to qualification.

The first game against Colombia saw Romania survive sustained pressure to overcome their much-fancied opponents; the 3-1 victory included a Hagi strike from the left touchline that became one of the iconic goals of the tournament, a 35-yard cross-shot that a player of lesser ability would never be given the credit for. Did he mean it? Of course he did, it was Hagi. Romania’s number 10 also laid on two goals for Florin Răducioiu in a performance that announced to the world: I’m back.

• • • •

Stoichkov Hagi

Read  |  Stoichkov and Hagi: The Dagger and The King

• • • •

There followed a 4-1 defeat to Switzerland whose only gloss from a Romanian perspective was a beautifully judged Hagi equaliser from 25 yards. The irrepressible Swiss attacking quartet of Sutter, Knup, Sforza and Chapuisat simply tore Romania to bits, leaving them requiring a point against the USA to go through. Dan Petrescu’s first-half strike – the only Romanian goal thus far in the tournament that Hagi hadn’t either scored or laid on directly – was enough to see Romania qualify top of an extremely testing group. They would face Argentina in the second round.

Having battered Greece 4-0 and seen off an excellent Nigeria side 2-1, Argentina’s exciting new generation of Batistuta, Simeone and Redondo, augmented by the ageing genius of Diego Maradona, made them one of the early tournament favourites. Maradona’s expulsion from the tournament after testing positive for ephedrine was followed by a morale-sapping 2-0 loss to Bulgaria that saw Argentina qualify from their group in third place. Some said the Argentines had lost deliberately; had they qualified in first place, they were due to meet Italy in the next round.

Hagi and Maradona had endured a bit of a kicking match when the two sides had met at Italia 90, and the Romanian was bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t renew the rivalry. “I still regret now that Maradona didn’t play. We really wanted to beat him on the pitch.” River Plate’s Ariel Ortega, then just 20, was the man Argentina pitted against Hagi for control of proceedings; Romania’s number 10, at the peak of his powers and brimming with confidence after his masterful displays in the group stage, ensured the duel would always be a catchweight contest.

Argentina were also missing the flamboyant Claudio Caniggia through injury, but their line-up still boasted seven European-based players, including Fiorentina’s goal machine Gabriel Batistuta. Romania, missing Răducioiu due to suspension, lined up without a recognised striker, and the scene seemed to be set for 90 minutes of attack against defence.

Instead what followed was a first half that has gone down in World Cup history as one of the greatest ever. The game began at breakneck speed. In the ninth minute, Diego Simeone picked his way through the massed Romanian rear-guard and fed Abel Balbo, the Roma striker wasting a golden chance by shooting straight at Florin Prunea. Two minutes later, a foul on Dorinel Munteanu was punished by Ilie Dumitrescu’s free-kick from the left touchline, another beguiling cross-shot that seemed to trace an almost identical trajectory to Hagi’s goal against Colombia from the same part of the Pasadena Rose Bowl pitch.

Five minutes had passed before Batistuta hurled himself to the ground in Romania’s box under pressure from Daniel Prodan; Batigol thundered home the resulting penalty with his usual clarity of purpose. 1-1, and Argentina would have been confident that they could now begin to make their superior ball possession count.

Perhaps they could have, had they not been victims of one of the most exquisite pieces of World Cup football just two minutes later. As an Argentine attack founders, Dan Petrescu feeds Hagi on the halfway line. It’s here that Hagi makes his first pass of the move, itself a contender for a Pass Remarkable article. Drawing three opponents to him, Hagi gives them the eyes before flighting a perfectly judged chip inside to Ioan Lupescu, who takes a touch and feeds Hagi to complete the one-two. It would have been a moment of football beauty long forgotten had the move ended differently.

Taking the ball from Lupescu, Hagi sees Argentina’s Fernando Cáceres ahead of him in the left-back position and no Romanians in the box. He has to buy himself some time. Feinting to go outside Cáceres, Hagi jinks back onto his left foot. Cáceres curses; he knows he’s supposed to show Hagi onto his weaker right foot. Hagi has fooled him and now has the split-second he requires. Looking up, he sees Dumitrescu sauntering through the middle of the Argentine defence, completely unchecked. He pulls back his left foot. The description of what happened next is best left to Romania’s number 11: “Hagi gave me a genius pass.”

With the Argentine defence advancing in anticipation of a square ball, Hagi slings the ball behind them. The pass is so well disguised that it fools not only the entire defence but also Luis Islas, the Argentina goalkeeper, who is astonished to find the ball suddenly almost on his six-yard line. Had Dumitrescu scuffed the ball in across the goalkeeper with his right foot, the goal would still be talked about now due to the quality of the build-up play, but his finish is the ideal coup de grâce, his decision to let the ball run across him and finish at the near post with his left foot leaving Islas utterly bamboozled.

When Hagi talked later about “the fantasy style of our football” in that tournament, it’s moments like this to which he’s referring: the kind of football that is so utterly flawless you’d expect to go years before seeing something that comes close. Yet Dumitrescu and Hagi would conjure up another breath-taking counter-attack in the 58th minute. As Jere Longman of the New York Times noted, Dumitrescu produced “a genius pass of his own”, again holding the ball under heavy pressure from Argentina’s defence before releasing the onrushing Hagi with a Pelé-to-Carlos Alberto-style roller. Romania’s little magician smashes the ball home with that weaker right foot to put the game out of sight. A Balbo consolation for Argentina in the 75th minute would be too little, too late.

It was the first time Romania had made the quarter-final stage, and their coach Anghel Iordănescu, in his emotion, reached into his country’s recent history for a comparable high. “This may be the greatest event celebrated by our people since the revolution,” he said, referring to the 1989 overthrow of Ceauşescu. As Hagi embraced Iordănescu on the pitch at the end of the game, he celebrated his own personal liberation: from being in the clutches of “the mug”, he now frolicked in the freedom of the Rose Bowl.

Despite eventual defeat in the quarter-finals to Sweden, Romania’s team returned home heroes – and some more so than others. In 1994, as the last remnants of the Ceauşescu regime were swept away, Romania was once again in thrall to one man. Like Ceauşescu, he had a nickname: Regele, meaning the king. Pictures of him in his new Barcelona strip hung in offices and schools, in houses and hospitals. His name was repeated ad infinitum in the papers. Unlike Ceauşescu, this man’s personality cult was an entirely popular creation.

“It’s impossible to go outside with him,” said Dorinel Munteanu, a fine attacking left-back in the ’94 side and Romania’s most-capped player. “People chat to him at every street corner.”

For Gheorghe Hagi, former communist pawn turned California king, redemption was complete.

• • • •

With thanks to Daniel Nyari for use of his Hagi illustration; a part of the groundbreaking Playmakers series. Check out more of Daniel’s outstanding work online at http://iamdany.com/

• • • •

By MJ Corrigan. Follow @corriganwriter