Why Gheorghe Hagi is a footballing icon
Lionel Messi, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez... once upon a time they would all have been playmakers, loping enigmatically behind the front two; as free of responsibility as an artist in his garret, asked only to create. Now they operate as second strikers or perform their magic from wide, chastened by the ideal of universality: all must press; all must perform their defensive duty.
The traditional playmaker is dead; the beginning of the end probably came sometime between a goal-starved Italia 90 and a joyless Euro 92. So concerned were FIFA by the increasing trend towards defensiveness that they outlawed the backpass and tried to eradicate the tackle from behind.
And yet, in the twilight of the playmaker, some stars still shimmered. Diego Maradona was still winning the battle with his demons, for Napoli at least, Denmark were illuminated by Michael Laudrup, Yugoslavia buzzed to Dragan Stojkovic’s command and Belgium’s golden era continued to be orchestrated by Enzo Scifo. Romania, meanwhile, were inspired by the man they would argue is the greatest European playmaker of the modern age: the incomparable Gheorghe Hagi.
- Date of birth 05/02/1965
- Place of birth Sacele, Romania
- Height 5ft 9in
- Position Attacker
In Bucharest it is impossible to speak of him with anything other than reverence. Indicative of the place he occupies in Romanian society, when Hustler launched a Romanian edition seven years ago their cover boasted not of the porn within but of an exclusive interview with Hagi. That he was mortified – speaking of the shame the incident would bring to his parents and insisting it wasn’t made clear who the interview was for – doesn’t detract from the reason he was chosen as the cover star: Gheorghe Hagi is the most famous Romanian who has ever lived.
What is most extraordinary is that, in a country in which the far right has a significant influence and in which questions of background are constantly raised, Hagi reached that level of acclaim despite not being an ethnic Romanian. He is Aromanian, part of a group of two million people scattered across south-east Europe, descendants of the indigenous Balkans Latinised following colonisation by Roman legions.
They were persecuted amid the border disputes that followed the end of the First World War and, in 1932, Hagi’s grandfather was one of 40,000 ethnic Aromanians who fled Greece to Romania. He set up home in the village of Sacele, near Constanta on the Black Sea coast. Hagi has fond memories of his grandfather who, like many Aromanians, was a shepherd. “I was proud when he, who was called Gheorghe like me, asked me to go and spend the whole day with him minding the sheep,” he says. “I loved to eat cheese and tomatoes with him, and that is still my favourite food today.”
- 1982-83 Farul Constanta (18 games, 7 goals); 1983-86 Sportul Studentesc (92, 53); 1986-1990 Steaua Bucharest (97, 85); 1990-92 Real Madrid (64, 15); 1992-1994 Brescia (61, 14); 1994-1996 Barcelona (21, 9); 1996-2001 Galatasaray (132, 59)
- International games: 125 games, 34 goals
'Maradona of the Carpathians'
It was his grandfather who introduced Hagi to sport, giving him a ball made of horse hair. “When my mother gave me my first proper ball it was like Christmas,” Hagi says. He played for hours on end, often with older boys, which caused problems when it became apparent just how much better he was than everybody else, despite his lack of stature. “‘Get away from here, you dirty child,’ they used to shout at me,” says Hagi. “‘You are here just to make fools of us?’ They didn’t understand that was just my style of play; that I never wanted to humiliate my opponent.” They were only the first to be mesmerised by the turn of pace and the wand of a left foot that would earn him the nickname ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’.
More serious opposition to his football career came from Hagi’s father, Iancu. “He would tell me I had to go to school,” Hagi says, “not stay all day with the ball and then ask people to give me something to eat out of pity.” Hagi was taken on by Farul, Constanta’s local side, then at the age of 15 he was invited to the Luceafarul in Bucharest, a school for exceptional talents intended to produce the strongest possible national team. Iancu was not convinced, and wouldn’t have allowed his son to go to the capital had an official from the football federation not come to Constanta and given him specific orders.
Facilities at the Luceafarul were poor, though, with the boys staying in a rat-infested dormitory. “It was incredible to have to live in those conditions,” he says, “but my dream to play one day for a big club and the national team was strong.”
I said no to famous clubs like Barcelona, Juventus, Internazionale and St Etienne
At 15, Hagi made his debut for a Romania youth team in Montaigu in France, and made such an impression that a number of foreign clubs tried to sign him. But Romanian law prevented children from leaving the country, and Hagi insists he couldn’t have gone anyway. “It was very tempting, but to stay away from my mother, father and sisters wasn’t possible,” he says. “We Aromanians have very strong family ties and our relations are the most important thing. So I said no to famous clubs like Barcelona, Juventus, Internazionale and Saint-Etienne.”
Instead, he returned to Constanta aged 16, and after a spell in their youth academy made his debut for the senior side in the 1982/83 season. “I told people to look at this child,” his first coach Iosif Bukossy remembers. “I knew he would soon be one of the best players in the world. He could do everything with the ball. To watch him was like watching a fairytale.”
Farul, though, were a small club who had never finished higher than fourth in the table, and Hagi’s departure was inevitable. A deal seemed to have been agreed to take him to Universitatea Craiova, then at the height of their brief period of supremacy, but perhaps because of the involvement of Nicu Ceausescu (son of dictator Nicolae) at Sportul Studentesc, he ended up being transferred there. His ability was not in question, but doubts persisted about Hagi’s physique. He is only 5ft 9in, and tests at Sportul indicated his heart and lungs were less developed than was usual among sportsmen. For a time he had to sign a form before every game to relieve his club of responsibility should he suffer any ill-effects on the field.