Eoin Coyne profiles the genius from Eastern Europe.
The early 90s football landscape was dotted with squat, diminutive football geniuses. As the quintessential archetype of this player, Diego Maradona, was about to hit a trough in his illustrious career others were reaching their own peaks in the game. Whilst Maradona would ultimately end up leaving the ’94 World Cup in disgrace having failed a drug test it was to be a career highlight for other dimuntive, left-footed schemers like Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi.
It really is fitting to mention these two together so similar were they both in talent and stature and if not for Stoichkov’s insistence on wearing number 8 he would surely have his own entry here. For a brief time they even played together at Barcelona in what was the ultimate wet-dream attacking lineup of Hagi, Stoichkov and Romario. That the three never really dovetailed as well as Johann Cruyff would have hoped probably explains why Hagi spent just two seasons at the Nou Camp.
By the time Gheorghe Hagi arrived at Barcelona in 1994 after his World Cup heroics he had already accumulated an impressive and eclectic footballing resumé. Debuting for Farul Constanța in 1982 it was really at Sportul Studențesc where he came to prominence and finished top scorer in the Romanian league despite playing, nominally, as a midfelder. Renowned for his close control, range of passing and ferocious left foot he soon came to the attention of the national team, making his debut in 1983. His next move was to the country’s biggest and most successful club Steaua Bucharest, though in strange circumstances; Steaua were reigning European Cup holders and signed Hagi on a one-game only deal for their European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kiev.
In typical Hagi style he played the game, scored the winning goal and was signed to a more long-term deal. It was to be a shrewd decision rewarded with Hagi’s most prolific spell in his career. Previously averaging just under a goal every other game he scored an incredible 76 goals in 97 Steaua appearances as well as winning a plethora of cups, leagues and personal titles. Frustratingly they could never recapture the European Cup, the one major trophy Hagi never seemed to be able to get his hands on througout his career. They did reach the fnal in 1989 but were soundly beaten 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s all conquering Milan team.
Having reportedly had previous moves blocked by the notorious Ceausescu regime Hagi left Romania in 1990 for the glamour and pressure of Real Madrid – despite playing very well in his second season Hagi found himself surplus to requirements at Madrid and in 1992 was on the move again. It is this next move in the Hagi story that seems oddly out of line with his career trajectory. Post-Madrid Gheorghe Hagi with his magical left foot wound up at Serie A minnows Brescia. Admittedly Serie A was the strongest league in the world in the early 90s but Brescia were a small club who were already in a relegation scrap when Hagi arrived, they subsequently finshed bottom. So he moved on right? Time for another Hagi aberration as he opeted to stay and played a season in Serie B helping Brescia back to the top flight and winning the Anglo-Italian Cup (remember that?) before heading off for the World Cup where ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’ would win global acclaim.
You can see his class in the first group game against the highly touted Colombians. Youtube really is a gift, when it comes to certain things, and I pored over a lot of Hagi clips preparing this piece but this World Cup seems to sum him up really well. Firstly, the obvious bit, THAT goal he scores from close to the touchline. He meant it, I’ve always been convinced of that. That’s the clip you see played a lot from that World Cup, to sum up Hagi’s impact or contribution but actually I think his control, turn and pass for Romania’s first goal was a more satisfying watch. It is a combination of his near perfect balance and immaculate close control, he throws a little feint at the approaching covering Colombian player darts into the bit of space he’s opened up for himself and instantly turns Romania from a defensive to an offensive unit.
Even when he didn’t score he was usually the one providing the ammunition and was at the centre of everything good Romania did at that tournament. After negotiating their way out of a tough group they faced Argentina in the last 16. You might have forgiven the Argentinian players and fans the odd admiring glance at Hagi as Romania’s number 10 set about doing all the things Maradona used to do for them. Argentina’s greatest number 10 was gone and Romania’s greatest number 10 served up a stark reminder of what they were missing – creating one and scoring what proved to be the winner as Romania progressed 3-2. What is most notable from the game are the perfect weight of his passes to Dumitrescu in the move that leads to Romania’s second goal. Two passes made under the most pressurised of settings, both absolutely perfect.
Romania were eliminated in the next round by Sweden after a goalkeeping mistake saw the 10-man Swedes nick a late equaliser before going on to win on penalties. With his new superstar status in tow Hagi’s move to Barcelona promised more than it ultimately delivered. Hagi always benefitted from being the creative focal point of his team and that was never going to be the case at Barcelona. There were of course still great goals, passes and moments of individual magic but as he approached 30 it seemed Hagi may be a power already on the wane. After 2 years in Catalonia it was time for Hagi to move on again. Although he did play for both Real and Barca Hagi never managed to win a league title with either side.
Come 1996 and at 31 Hagi joined Galatasary in Turkey and enjoyed a prolonged Indian summer. Hagi had not gone to Turkey for a handy retirement somewhere sunny. He played for five more years winning pretty much everything along the way – 4 leagues, 2 cups, 2 supercups, a UEFA Cup and a UEFA Super Cup. Needless to say he is a living legend to Gala fans and despite his numerous other clubs they consider him very much ‘their’ player. They love him so much they even made him manager for a while. Unfortunately his international career ended on something of a sour note, being sent off against Italy in Euro 2000 a good 6 years before another great number 10 would end his international career in similar circumstances.
Hagi retired in 2001 and, after a few failed tenures as a manager, he has kept himself busy by starting his own football club back home, FC Viitorul Constanța. I think that sums Hagi up, on and off the pitch he does things other peope wouldn’t even allow themselves to consider. A true maverick and definitely one of the greatest number 10s.