In his heyday, Gheorghe Hagi was considered one of the greatest attacking midfielders in the world. He was known for his vision, technique, passing, and finishing, which saw him earn the nickname “The Maradona of the Carpathians.” He scored 35 goals in 124 appearances for Romania, becoming the country’s joint leading goalscorer. In 2004, Pelé named Hagi as one of the 125 greatest living footballers in the world.
Farul Constanța (1982–1983)
Sportul Studențesc (1983–1987)
Steaua București (1987–1990)
Real Madrid (1990–1992)
Club football: 516 matches, 237 goals
National team: 124 matches, 35 goals
Life under Ceaușescu
Hagi began his senior playing career in Farul Constanţa, eventually moving to Sportul Studenţesc in 1983. During the following four years, he made a name for himself by scoring 58 goals in 108 caps for Sportul, drawing the attention of Romanian dictator Ceauşescu. In 1987, Ceauşescu’s government oversaw Hagi’s transfer to Romanian powerhouse Steaua Bucureşti, and it was widely speculated that Sportul got nothing in return.
Hagi spent three great seasons with Steaua, scoring close to a goal a game and leading them to the European Cup semi-final in 1988 and the final in 1989. His eye-catching performances saw him linked to various European clubs, but the government was quick to reject any offers. This uneasy stalemate lasted until December 1989, when Ceauşescu was overthrown in the Romanian Revolution. Finally, Hagi was free to leave the country for good.
Following a solid showing at the 1990 World Cup, Hagi signed with Real Madrid. However, the many years of being a big fish in a small pond left Hagi suffering from an inferiority complex. Many years later, Hagi admitted that playing with other superstars such as Hugo Sánchez and Emilio Butragueño had him in a near-constant state of distress. After two forgettable seasons in Madrid, Real passed him on to the lowly Brescia in 1992.
His first season in Italy was mixed, and he was unable to influence his team’s inability to score goals. That season, Brescia found the net just 36 times -- the lowest amount in the league -- which saw them relegated to Serie B. Despite speculations that Hagi would leave, he decided to stay and help the club secure its promotion back to Serie A. He succeeded in his first attempt, recapturing most of his old magic along the way.
The 1994 World Cup
Having barely qualified for the 1994 World Cup, Romania was not expected to do well. However, this squad had more talent than any other in its history. In their first game against Colombia, Hagi scored an iconic 40-yard lob goal from the left touchline and assisted for two more in a shocking 3-1 victory. They then lost 1-4 to Switzerland, but a close 1-0 victory over the United States was enough to qualify for the knockout round.
In the round of 16, Romania was a heavy outsider against Argentina, despite the fact that Maradona was expelled from the tournament for failing a drug test. Once again, they subverted the expectations. In one of the classic World Cup games, Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu combined to score three memorable goals and knock Argentina out of the tournament. Despite Romania losing to Sweden in the quarter-finals, Hagi was named in the Team of the Tournament.
In 1994, Hagi signed for Barcelona, becoming one of the few players to play for both Spanish football giants. However, he arrived during the dying years of Cruyff’s tenure as manager, as the team had lost most of its motivation to perform well. Unable to turn the tide, Hagi left Barça after two seasons and signed with Galatasaray in 1996. He would spend the rest of his career in Turkey, scoring 59 goals in 132 caps before retiring in 2001.
With Galatasaray, Hagi enjoyed his second youth. In addition to leading the team to four consecutive league titles, he helped them claim the UEFA Cup and the Super Cup in 2000. These were the first international titles in Galatasaray’s history, making Hagi a legendary figure among the club’s fans. In recognition of his achievements, he became known as “Comandante” and had several chants written for him.
Internationally, Hagi recorded his final World Cup appearance in 1998. Following a strong first-place finish in a group containing England, Colombia, and Tunisia, Romania qualified for the round of 16. However, they were beaten by the up-and-coming Croatia, who went on to finish 3rd in the tournament. Hagi retired from the national team in 2000, after a 0-2 defeat to Italy at the quarter-finals of the Euro 2000.
By Martin Wahl
YouTube: Gheorghe Hagi, Regele din Carpați, Barbosa Fútbol Videos