My Perfect 10: Gheorghe Hagi

As we enter the final day of Playmakers Week here on FourFourTwo.com, Turkish blogger Sefa Atay recalls the impact the Romanian made on Galatasaray...

It could be the weather, the luxurious lifestyle or simply the open nature of the football, but Turkey attracts traditional number 10’s.

Way before this blogger’s time legends were made. The likes of Lefter, Hami and Sergen Yalcin will be remembered by all. Likewise imported stars such as Jay Jay Okocha, Haim Revivo and Alex De Souza. The latter could arguably have been awarded this title. However, amid this haze of talent there is one man whose left foot, international reputation and ridiculous talent set him higher than the rest - the one and only Gheorghe Hagi.

In a career spanning over 19 years, Hagi played for Barcelona and Real Madrid, competed in three World Cups and was named Romanian Player of the Year a record number of times. However, it was at the ripe old age of 31 that he made his name in Turkey. Fondly remembered as the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’, Hagi’s reputation at Galatasaray will be set in stone forever.

He joined the red and yellow of Istanbul in 1996 and became the pivot in a team boasting experienced heads along with the future of Turkish football. The likes of Emre Belozoglu, Okan Buruk and Umit Davala would all go on to become household names while established stars such as Hakan Sukur, Taffarel and Gheorghe Popescu carried a wealth of experience. Cimbom became the force of Turkish football, not only domestically but also in Europe.

Lead by Fatih Terim, Galatasaray were crowned Champions of Turkey from 1996 to 2000. In 1998/99 they would add the Turkish Cup to complete a domestic double. However, it would be the following year that the team, and in particular Hagi, would make a name for themselves.

It was to be a season remembered for the wrong reasons as much as the successes. A 2-0 UEFA Cup semi final win over Leeds United was marred by the death of two supporters after clashes between fans in Istanbul.

Galatasaray travelled to England for the second leg amid heavy security and received a hostile reception from the home fans. Hagi’s first half penalty put Cimbom ahead and his assist to Hakan Sukur for Galatasaray's second was not only brilliant, but it sealed the match. With the ball rolling towards him and the deftest flick off his heal the Romanian beat his man before feeding Sukur with an inch perfect pass. Cimbom were in the final and, with Arsenal the opponents, the stage was set for the magician.

As with many a no.10, Hagi was occasionally culpable of lashing out. After tangling with Tony Adams, Hagi was shown a red card for appearing the strike the Arsenal defender on the back. Adams was lucky to only be shown a yellow, but Galatasaray would play out the rest of the extra time with ten men. None the less, thanks mainly to a man-of-the-match performance from Taffarel, Cimbom clinched the first European trophy in Turkey’s history and ensured themselves heroes status.

It would be a summer of red for the Romanian as he was again sent off in his final appearance in the famous yellow shirt of his country. “A star has fallen from the sky", read the headline in Bucharest daily, ProSport after Romania’s elimination from Euro 2000 at the hands of Italy. It signalled the end of an international career spanning 125 games. 

ProSport editor Catalin Tolontan reasoned; "Should we drag Hagi's name through the mud, treat him like a snake because he could not control his temper? Certainly not." It was a willingness to forgive that matched a nation’s love for a true legend.

Hagi was temperamental but he was also the stuff of genius, an entertainer and an advocate for the beautiful side of the game. Nobody could argue with that. Born in Romania, made in Turkey and loved across the World.

There really is only one Gheorghe Hagi.

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