The closest Turkish Süper Lig title race in years came to a familiar conclusion in May 2018. Central to Galatasaray being crowned champions was the appointment of Fatih Terim for a fourth term in December 2017. Revered in Istanbul, the ‘Emperor’ has an unprecedented record of success at Galatasaray, with his seventh league win.
His greatest spell came during his first term, between 1996 and 2000, with four successive leagues and European honours. Every Emperor needs talented men on the ground to lead the troops, though. Nicknamed the ‘Comandante‘, for Terim, that man was Gheorghe Hagi.
Already established as an international superstar, Hagi landed in Istanbul at the age of 31 fresh from a personally unsatisfying spell at Barcelona. His time at the Camp Nou was plagued by injuries and poor form, with a move agreed in early August 1996 as Galatasaray beat Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle to his signature. There was initial scepticism over the deal in the press, with widespread reports that he was actually 35, but Hagi ignored these rumours. He insisted he would let his performances on the pitch prove the doubters wrong.
It didn’t take long for that to happen, with Hagi scoring 43 minutes into his debut at Vanspor. With 10 minutes left on the clock, he got his second to seal a 2-1 win, foreshadowing how important he was to become for his new team. Scoring the winner in his next game against Trabzonspor, Hagi’s first year at the Ali Sami Yen brought a total of 14 goals in 30 league games, with Galatasaray ending eight points clear of Beşiktaş to secure their first title in three years.
Hagi assisted massively in the run in, with a late penalty salvaging a draw at Beşiktaş and starring performance away to İstanbulspor. In the latter, he scored the winner from the spot, alongside recording a truly special goal. Well known for his long-range shooting – such as his famous lob over Colombian goalkeeper Óscar Córdoba at the 1994 World Cup – Hagi was soon showing off this party trick in his new homeland.
Taking a corner, he played a one-two prior to beating the defender and unleashing a curling effort from the edge of the box into the far top corner. It was a world-class goal, the spontaneity of which meant İstanbulspor keeper Haluk Güngör didn’t even move. Left stunned by the technical skill of the Gala number 10, it was another thing that was to become synonymous with Hagi’s time in Turkey.
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The following season brought another league title, with Hagi having established himself as a cult hero in Istanbul. In the end, there were only four points separating Galatasaray from their rivals Fenerbahçe, but the Romanian was no less influential. Despite registering fewer goals – just eight strikes – he still recorded match-winners against Gaziantepspor and Dardanelspor. Then there were the wonder goals, such as the opening free-kick in a 3-2 victory over Beşiktaş.
Hagi slowed no signs of slowing down, with the 1998/99 season starting off in particularly memorable fashion. The opening day featured a brace against Altay, with it taking just five minutes for Hagi to fire home from some 30 yards out. The very next game, a 5-0 rout of Bursaspor, saw a goal from practically the same position, although this time, he received the ball with his back to goal before turning the defender and curling into the far corner.
As if to dispel the notion of him simply being a long-range expert came a goal in October 1998 against Karabükspor that showcased Hagi at his breathtaking best. Exchanging the ball on the halfway line, Hagi cuts inside from the left and beats two men before nonchalantly lifting the ball over Şevki Ekşi from the edge of the box. One cannot overstate the skill necessary to score this goal, with the Romanian executing the chip on the run and not even lifting his head to pick his spot.
Another aspect of Hagi’s play was his knack of creating goals, with the classic number 10 possessing a wand of a left foot and unrivalled vision. In his first season he won the Asist Kral award for being the 1. Lig’s top goal provider, recording a total of 51 assists across his five seasons at the Ali Sami Yen. He also helped boost the numbers of Hakan Şükür, who, in Hagi’s first season at the club, hit an unprecedented 37 goals, enough to make him Europe’s top scorer. Asked to describe the impact of Hagi, Turkey’s all-time record scorer simply labelled him “a genius”.
The 1998/98 season ended in familiar fashion, with another logic-defying goal in a 3-0 win over Sakaryaspor. The ball was practically on the by-line and in line with the post, but the 34-year-old somehow managed to defy physics to steer the ball in.
The narrative of age was never far away from Hagi’s career, with former France international Luis Fernández claiming how the Romanian was like a wine getting better with age. As a testament to this, the following season was to prove perhaps the most successful of Hagi’s career.
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Things started off with well in the pre-season TSYD Cup, with a trademark free-kick against Fenerbahçe helping Galatasaray to the final ever title of the now defunct competition. Shortly after, in August, Hagi ran the show in the Champions League qualifier against Rapid Vienna, running half the pitch prior to chipping a stranded Ladislav Maier to wrap up a 3-0 win in the Austrian capital.
Meanwhile, the league season began with four goals in the first three games, before injury meant a two-month spell on the sidelines. Hagi marked his return in the new millennium with a goal and assist against Kocaelispor, prior to scoring an incredible long-range drive in a 3-1 triumph over Altay. The 1. Lig concluded with yet another league title, although what distinguished this season from the others Hagi spent at Galatasaray was their impending success in Europe.
Hagi was instrumental in the run to the UEFA Cup final in Copenhagen, playing in every match besides the second leg of the third-round clash with Bologna. His experience was vital in guiding Galatasaray past the likes of Borussia Dortmund, who he scored against in the first leg, and Leeds. Uncharacteristically, Hagi was to have a minimal impact on the final, failing to score prior to being sent off.
After being hit in the face by a flailing arm from Tony Adams, the Romanian pushed the Arsenal captain in the back, receiving a straight red card for his troubles. Nevertheless, a talented side featuring the likes of Şükür, Okan Buruk and Bülent Korkmaz battled through extra time to win 4-1 on penalties. Hagi’s temperament was always something that raised questions, but he was back to his best in the following season’s UEFA Super Cup against his old employers Real Madrid.
Despite both goals being scored by Mário Jardel, the highlight was a memorable turn of skill from Hagi. Roberto Carlos had been troubled all night despite the eight-year age difference, and shortly after a small confrontation, Hagi proceeded to put him in his place. Squaring up to the Brazilian, he flicked the ball in a way reminiscent of Joga Bonito – usually associated with the left-back’s compatriots – before accelerating away into the Monte Carlo night.
In response, Carlos furiously caught up prior to fouling the Romanian, but if anything, this proves to showcase the unique talent the Romanian possessed. To do this in a European final against one of the best left-backs in the history of the game, all at the age of 35, was simply remarkable. In the end, Hagi was to have the last laugh, with Jardel grabbing the golden goal in extra time to seal another historic title.
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His final season in Arslan colours started with arguably his best goal for Galatasaray in the opening Group D Champions League match against Monaco. Not dissimilar from the aforementioned Colombia goal, Hagi served to deceive Fabien Barthez with a whipped ball into the box that left the World Cup winner scrambling in vain. For many players there would be a debate over the intention, but, given the skill of the player who executed it, none took place.
Yet again, Hagi got into double figures for goals, with 11 strikes in the newly named Süper Lig. Braces were scored against Erzurumspor, Kocaelispor and Adanaspor, with the latter featuring another 30-yard piledriver alongside two assists. Despite not winning the league – the only time this happened in Hagi’s time in Turkey – his final game against Trabzonspor brought two goals and another assist as he signed off in an emotional farewell.
The relative disappointment of the season represented the determination and will-to-win of Hagi, another asset that helped get him the top of his profession. Following the chalking off of a seemingly legitimate Hasan Şaş goal against Gençlerbirliği in March 2001, Hagi resorted to spitting at referee Erol Ersoy. He didn’t confine his anger after the match either, labelling Ersoy a thief and claiming the TFF wanted Fenerbahçe to win the league.
One could argue this fiery attitude blotted his image, but it was part of his makeup and a key component of what endeared Hagi at Galatasaray. His aura of invincibility was, however, somewhat tainted during two spells as manager, where he failed to live up to his admittedly lofty standards.
During his first stint in 2004/05, Hagi led the club to a 5-1 win in the Türkiye Kupası final against Fenerbahçe, although lost out to the city rivals in the Süper Lig. As a result his contract was not renewed, and his return in October 2010 ended with him being sacked five months later after a series of poor results.
Despite this, it takes nothing away from the reputation Hagi built in Turkey, where in just half a decade he endeared himself to Galatasaray fans in a way few others have. With his mercurial talent and catalytic effect on their team, his position is immortal as perhaps the best player to have ever worn the Galatasaray shirt.
By James Kelly @jkell403