‘They brainwashed me’: Gheorghe Hagi describes the experience of playing for both Barcelona and Real Madrid

Gheorghe Hagi Real Madrid and Barcelona
(Image credit: Getty Images/PA)

Gheorghe Hagi has done something only a handful of players have ever even considered during his professional playing career: turn out for both Barcelona and Real Madrid. 

While for players such as Luis Figo, who made the direct switch from Camp Nou to the Bernabeu and was subsequently lambasted for his decision, Hagi describes his experience of playing for both clubs as an honour. 

Though the Romanian did sandwich his time in Spain with a two-year spell at Italian side Brescia, he believes that simply being able to play his football outside of Romania - something he was unable to do before 1989 - was an opportunity he couldn't refuse. Turning down two of the biggest clubs in world football, therefore, was impossible.

"There was interest in me all of the time, but I wouldn’t want to change anything," Hagi tells FourFourTwo. "I had a very good career – I can’t be unhappy about anything. I’m proud to be among the very few foreigners to have played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, after I left Romania in 1990. 

"Both clubs taught me a lot. I left both of them better than when I came, in many ways: I learned the culture; I was educated in their spirit; they brainwashed me and put inside my brain the idea that I could be the best in the world. After the Romanian Revolution [in 1989], I kept in mind only one thing: that I could become the best and play anywhere, something I couldn’t do before 1989. 

"I understood that it was up to me to do something – that the sky was the limit. I could make my own decisions and show how ambitious I was. That’s why I got where I wanted to be."

Signed from Steaua Bucharest, Hagi explains how his initial move to Real Madrid came about in 1990. 

"When the president of the club [Real Madrid] came to Bucharest and wanted to see me, I felt honoured. He didn’t have to tell me much; talks didn’t last for long. The change was huge from a few points of view. You change your way of living, eating and communicating. It took me around four months to adapt. 

"The first month was very difficult, but then I started to get used to the language and I started communicating with the media and everyone around me. That was one of the most important things. I learned the language by myself. Bit by bit, everything started to return to normal and I started feeling good, playing well and becoming an important player for the team. 

"My second year there was amazing for me personally, but unfortunately we lost the last game to miss out on the league title, and also lost the final of the Copa del Rey. Losing those games fuelled my decision to leave Real Madrid and start looking for a new adventure elsewhere."

Indeed, he ended up at Brescia in 1992, but suffered relegation from Serie A at the end of the season. Unable to leave, Hagi helped them back into Italy's top flight, before Barcelona came calling. 

"I received a phone call from Johan Cruyff. He was one of the big reasons why I went to Barcelona. Even before that World Cup in 1994, he said I was the best No.10 in Europe. When such a big club wants you and gives you the opportunity to work with your idol and learn Total Football, what can you say? 

"He changed football with what he did as a manager at Barcelona. His system and the way he saw football was just amazing. He encouraged offensive football; he wanted us to play forward, to score. In two years at Barcelona, I learned a lot: how to dominate; how to position yourself on the field; how to balance attack and defence. He put the fundamentals in my brain. 

"He influenced me back then and he still does. What I learned from Cruyff is part of my philosophy now – I’m trying to use it as much as I can."

Having spent two years each at both Spanish giants, Hagi is reluctant to compare Real Madrid and Barcelona. 

"It’s impossible to separate them," he admits. "I feel proud and honoured to have represented both. 

"Everything I did was worth it – all of the sacrifices, all of the struggles I had. You have to struggle in order to win; you encounter difficult moments and I’m glad I got so far. Real Madrid and Barcelona are huge clubs. I loved playing for both, I was educated by both, and I offered a lot at both the Bernabeu and Camp Nou."

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