Illustration by Federico Manasse
The Maradona of the Carpathians, Gheorghe Hagi is a complex character. There is a dividing line between the hero of the masses he undoubtedly was in Romania, and the wilting flower he so often appeared to be at the Santiago Bernabéu and the Camp Nou.
There is an unfairness to the paragraph above. In 1991/92, Real Madrid should have won the La Liga title. They instead stumbled on a final day trip to Tenerife, one act of a peculiar two season run where Los Blancos fumbled the title on the final day, on the most pre-emanate Canary Island.
Lost within the blur of Johan Cruyff’s blossoming Dream Team, 1992 should have belonged to Hagi. His brilliance that season is forever lost within the pain of that defeat in Tenerife. Real Madrid led La Liga from late October, until they handed the top spot to Barcelona on the final day.
When Real Madrid repeated the very same feat 12-months later, Hagi was in Italy, with Brescia, suffering once more. Despite his own outstanding performances, he could only despair as his new club succumbed to relegation, losing to Udinese in an end-of-season relegation playoff in Bologna. At the peak of his powers, a year before the World Cup finals, and with several attractive options on the table, Hagi elected to stay at Brescia. He stayed and he led the Rondinelle to an immediate return to Serie A. From devastation, Hagi had mended the broken hearts of the city.
In the summer of 1994, he led Romania to the World Cup finals. A Mark Bowen missed penalty away from not being there at all, Romania became one of the most hypnotic teams at USA 94. Hagi was at the peak of his powers. Infused by the feeling of a job well done at Brescia, the World Cup was his reward.
Original Series | The 50
Playing a brand of football that was far removed from the bleak, Ceaușescu-shrouded nation the world had viewed them as, prior to the Romanian Revolution of December 1989, Hagi and Romania produced a style that was bathed in artistry. This wasn’t Iron Curtain football.
Having had the stomach to defeat the host nation in Pasadena – in front of over 96,000 spectators – to top their group, Romania had beaten a shell-shocked but counter-punching Argentina in the last-16. Hagi was key to everything Romania achieved. In the quarter-finals, it was a meeting of two contrasting ethos. Sweden, strong, physical, with a mild sprinkling of flair, against a passionate and artistic Romania, with Hagi as the conductor. They couldn’t be split; 2-2 after 120 minutes. Romanian hearts were broken in a penalty shoot-out, and the intriguing prospect of a Brazil vs Romania semi-final was gone.
For three successive seasons, Hagi had been a close witness to footballing heartbreak. From Tenerife to Bologna, and finally Stanford.
Ten years earlier, Hagi had travelled to Euro 84 as an impressionable 19-year-old. A cameo role against Spain, and the first 45-minutes against West Germany, had given him a taste of something he wanted more of. Between 1984 and 1994, his nation had only managed to qualify for Italia 90. Not fully fit, Hagi tentatively worked his way into the tournament, but by the time he was reaching peak condition, Ireland were knocking them out in the last-16. USA 94 was his time, his moment, and it was prised from him by the narrowest of margins.
The following two years should have been the best of his career. Signed by Cruyff for Barcelona as the natural heir to Michael Laudrup’s throne, he endured a stop-start spell with the Catalans. Often injured, and occasionally omitted tactically, the power in the Spanish game shifted once more to the capital.
A poor Euro 96 was followed by his departure from the Camp Nou to an unexpected new destination, as he headed to Istanbul and Galatasaray, where he once again fell in love with the game, winning a vast array of domestic silverwear, and also collecting a UEFA Cup winners medal in 2000. It was here that the world finally came to appreciate his talents for the first time since the summer of ’94.
After one final season in 2000/01, Hagi waved farewell to his playing days, reappearing as a coach, predominantly in Turkey, a nation he fell in love with. Despite his many blows and near-misses at the top of the gamne, Hagi remains unequivocally the greatest Romanian player of all-time, capable of moments of magic that few could ever dream of replicating. In a national game that is now stagnating, how Romania could do with an icon as talented and passionate as Gheorghe Hagi