There’s seldom so little doubt in choosing a nation’s greatest ever player than in the case of Romania. There’s only one candidate; Gheorghe Hagi.
A modern-day definition of a football cult figure, Hagi has been the iconic name that embodied Romania’s rise to the world scene as a football nation worthy of international recognition. To this day, the name bears a relative familiarity in western football culture, which is however fading away with the inevitable distance brought by time growing between the moments that defined his ascension to the global spotlight and a present that is almost synonymous with Romania’s football. At this point, both seem to be sharing the umbrella of one word…. forgotten. Yet, is that truly the case?
We have to go back almost three decades to get a better look at how and why things happened as they did for both Hagi and Romanian football. By the end of the 1980s, Romania were in a position of complete chaos and social ambiguity; caused by a revolution that saw a violent coup d'état end Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship by having the leader and his wife publicly executed. The constantly fermenting new fractions of power brought new ideologies and promises to a nation that simply demanded something else rather than oppression. For the people of Romania would hang on to any speech about the promised land of freedom, coffee and blue jeans. As a result of the vast inflation that followed the revolution, the structure and running of existing state and public institutions would have suffered a complete collapse. Among these? The institution of sport.
The irony lay in the timing; the extreme organisation and discipline of Ceausescu’s public sector would appear to bear fruit much later after he had planted the seeds. Having failed to qualify for four consecutive World Cups - between 1974 and 1986 - a new ray of hope was slowly taking shape in a nation that seemed to find football as one of the few means of cultural expression in the oppressive and tumultuous times of Communism.
Ceausescu’s industrialized Romania was a nation that would have little time for entertainment and was characterized by a heavy emphasis on the proletariat role of the public in the state’s welfare. Yet, much like a famous man in Rome who organised gladiator fights in the Colosseum, Ceausescu saw the distinctive advantages of promoting football; collective joy for the masses, as well as a vital ingredient for national unity and cohesion in a time where he needed it the most.
During his lengthy tenure, the national and local football infrastructures would be allocated significant budgets as well as strict instructions to develop a systematic recruitment network for young players across the whole country. At that time and particularly in rougher, poorer areas, football was one of the few joys a child could have and could be found in their thousands playing football on the streets of Bucharest alone.
One of the most successful projects of this kind was the ‘Luceafărul’ academy, a club in the heart of Bucharest established with the sole purpose of recruiting and developing young talent. From 1980 to ‘85, there was a new, exciting generation practicing one-two’s and technical routines under Luceafărul’s roof. The eternally rival duo of Bucharest, Steaua and Dinamo, wasted little time in swooping for some of their best looking prospects. Amongst them, names that would later ring rounds of echoes in any Romanian’s ears; Ioan Andone, Gica Popescu, Ioan Sabau and many others. Gheorghe Hagi was one of the products and, while he only joined Steaua as late as 1987 after a four year spell with his home-town club Farul Constanta, he was very much a Luceafărul academy product.
By 1990, Romania submitted a fully home-grown squad to that year’s World Cup. Only five players out of the 22-man squad would play for clubs other than Steaua or Dinamo and none of the players on that list would play for clubs outside Romania. This fresh, young side had a very impressive campaign, which saw the team advance to the Round of 16 after a series of great performances against the likes of Soviet Union and Argentina. Jack Charlton’s Ireland side eventually proved a hurdle too far and too early for the young Romanians, who were knocked-out after a penalty shoot-out. They came out of the tournament with their heads held high; this was the best performance by the National side in over a decade.
The star of the campaign? Well, who else? Gifted with supreme technical skills and an acute sense of position and space, Hagi was one of the most devastating attacking midfielders of the competition, which eventually earned him the label ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’. He displayed a complete range of attacking skills; from perfectly executed dip-shots, to long range free-kicks, mouth-watering dribbling, exquisite passing and manipulation of space.
His display earned him a transfer to Real Madrid for a fee of 4 million dollars, a headline-grabbing fee at the time.
The national team’s performance was regarded as a big success by supporters at home, who gathered in the tens of thousands on the streets to celebrate the only victories they were sure of at the time: Hagi’s. Having assisted or scored most of the team’s goals in that competition, it would only take him a few months to win the broken heart of Romania, still bleeding from its’ post-revolutionary crisis. Some newspapers even proposed his candidacy for the presidential position as the lemon on the cocktail glass of both, confusion and euphoria. The first generated by the political fiasco which was still at large, and the second by the national team’s incredible feats.
The next edition of the World Cup would be hosted in the United States, and by 1994 a few of the young stars would have completed moves to big European sides such as AC Milan, PSV or Valencia. Many would argue, however, theirs as well as Hagi’s departures were a consequence of the collapse of Ceausescu’s conservative regime that helped liberalise the Romanian football transfer market. Before the revolution, the state would often interfere with and forbid transfers abroad to players it regarded of importance to the national side, so many took advantage of the new liberties by making their way to some elite sides of world football at the time.
The fulcrum of the 1994 World Cup side, however, remained more or less the same as in the previous edition of the competition. Led by the already iconic number 10 – Gheorghe Hagi, or ”The King” as he is affectionately known in the Danubio-Carpathian region, the side relied on the talents of Gica Popescu, Dan Petrescu, Miodrag Belodedici, Bogdan Stelea and Florin Raducioiu to produce yet another unforgettable series of spectacular football for a cheering nation back home.
After a 3-1 victory against a Colombia side that Pelé dubbed as the favourite for the competition of that year, a wonder goal from Hagi that left the whole world speechless and an emblematic display of unity from the players, Romania went from strength to strength and famously beat an Argentina side that lacked its’ own hero, Diego Maradona, after he was suspended for drug use following the infamous footage of his goal celebration. The dream was getting sweeter than ever for Hagi and his side as Romania reached the quarter-final of the World-Cup where they would face an equally impressive Sweden team. After a tense match that finished 2-2 in extra time, penalties were the enemy again as Miodrag Belodedici missed the decisive shot and well...Romania was knocked-out of the World-Cup.
Upon their return back home, the team were treated as national heroes, with a line of supporters as long as 6 miles cheering them as they made their way home from the airport. An entire nation had found solace in football yet again, and Hagi was the name that symbolised that large-scale collective escape from the instability and fear looming over an entire society. Yet the euphoria had reasons rooted in matters far worse than the breathtaking attacking football the team showed in those two World-Cups.
The infrastructure of Romania’s football system and their previously well-established youth recruitment networks had fallen to unprecedented lows in the years that followed Communism and its’s collapse. The new, privatised approach that a still volatile new-formed government promoted in football, would see a number of high profile businessmen such as Gigi Becali or Cristian Borcea take over the biggest clubs in Romania. The ownership of the clubs now passed into the hands of investors that got rich quickly by exploiting the gaps left between the old system and the new one. In the space of five, six years there was a new ’class’ of football owner that replaced the state’s initial role of running the football clubs – The Patron. Drawn towards more palpable, financial gains rather than sporting achievements, these owners used the brands of clubs that enjoyed huge followings in Romania only to treat them as their luxury items, meant to boost their public profile and completely neglected investment in infrastructure or management. They would often interfere with their managers and would go as far as picking the starting eleven themselves. The character of ’the patron’ would go on to personify the typical faults of a society that simply failed to adapt from the universality of communism to the specialised, expertise driven approach that the western world proposed.
Active to this day, the most well-known names in terms of club managing owners are Gigi Becali (Steaua) and Cristian Borcea (Dinamo).
A huge list of big football clubs went into administration as a result of the de-centralised, capitalist approach, and the close connections that the ’Patrons’ held with the FA representatives ensured that the league would become even less competitive as scandals of corruption and match-fixing were the subject of football talk-shows more than football itself.
Meanwhile, 1998 saw Romania reach the round of 16 of a World Cup trophy that would famously end up in the arms of Zinedine Zidane. It was another great performance from what had been widely established as ’Romania’s golden generation’ and to this day, Romania would fail to qualify for every edition of the World Cup since. While players like Hagi and Petrescu would go on to play for clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea, things were having a slightly different turn back home. The Romanian Liga I had become a playground for whoever had the money and was looking for fun in football, and Hagi famously erupted on the issue in a press conference on the eve of the national team’s return from France:
’If you keep doing things like you’re doing them, destroying what’s left of the nation’s football, you’ll have nothing in four-five years time.... nothing! You can’t expect us to carry you forever! Romanian football will be dead in ten years time, take my word’
Many laughed at Hagi, particularly because of his rural accent and slightly less eloquent ways of expressing himself. And yet... a few dozen corruption fiascos later and as the millennium turns, the state of football affairs would appear to be beyond repair in the ex-communist state. The country has seen a record number of clubs liquidated in the first two divisions, amongst which several national title and cup holders. The Government’s ignorance towards sports ultimately meant that all the power was in the hands of a limited number of people which could completely control the fate of each match, club, relegation and promotion. It so happened that on a general assembly of the FA and the club Patrons, they’ve all admitted themselves to having arranged around 80% of the matches in the highest Romanian Division over the course of a 98-99 season on live television. Although indirectly, everybody could see that they had even lost the fear of hiding it anymore, after all, it was something an entire nation had gotten used to for more than a decade.
With more than 700 hundred complaints per year to the European governing bodies from players that haven’t seen their salary in months and yet were forced into playing for their clubs, with the infrastructure of both club and national facilities to the point of collapse due to lack of investment, and with an increasingly hostile environment for youth development, the Romanian football world would appear to be driving itself to the most obvious form of self-destruction.
The forty, fifty thousand seater stadiums that used to be full even in second division matches would now be pretty much empty, particularly due to the drastic fall in the standards of the football performed on the pitch. So bad had the quality of Romania’s first division football become, that even amateur clubs, established in a fortnight, could make their way into it in one or two seasons. There was no strategy whatsoever from the FA, as all the big positions were filled with people that were looking to extort as much money as they possibly could from what was left of a once loyal fan-base. Historic clubs like Poli Timisoara or FC Arges were either disbanded or divided into two or three separate clubs. Steaua Bucharest had a re-branding of their historic club crest which, in line with their owner - Gigi Becali’s antics and never-ending jail sentences, alienated the majority of arguably Romania’s most popular football club. The Patrons’ focus on bringing in exotic, foreign players would be the main events of the year for most fans, and many big clubs in the league would not even have a youth academy. The list of calamities could go on and on, but the one element that suffered the most from this state of affairs was the national team.
Hagi went on to have an illustrious career at club level, having featured for the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Brescia and Galatasaray. After being talked out of retirement by some influential figures in Romanian football as well as whole nation appealing on live television, he made his last appearance for the national team against Italy in the 2000 European Championship Quarter-Finals. The match ended in a 2-0 loss for Romania and Hagi was sent off, after being visibly frustrated by his side’s poor display and the increasing realisation that he simply couldn’t do anything more for the team he dedicated his life to. That along with saying his last goodbye without having won any silverware would ultimately prove to be too much for the legendary number 10, as he exits the field with the Italian jeers behind his back and well... a blurry vision of what the future might hold ahead.
Hagi’s contribution to the National Team ended with a hint of tragedy. A closing paragraph that saw one of the game’s greatest players unable to truly fulfil his potential for his country due to a corrupt system that failed to support and build on his genius, whilst the most unstable political period in Romania’s modern history provided the deciding context for matters to go from bad to worse.
In the meantime, a new Romanian generation was emerging since the dawn of the ’Golden Generation’, and whilst it featured famous names like Adrian Mutu and Cristian Chivu it simply lacked depth and had to compensate for the astronomical gap that was already in place between the standards of the domestic football league and that of the other, more advanced European nations. Being completely depleted of quality options from the domestic championship, it failed to qualify for every International Competition since 2000, the exceptions being the appearances in the Euro groups in 2008 and 2016, both of which ended up in a series of horrid performances, marked by the team’s failure to win a single match in both editions.
And yet when all seems to be lost... a small star appears in the darkened skies of what had become of Romanian Football. And the closer it gets, the more familiar it looks – in 2009 Gheorghe Hagi rocks the headlines by making a spectacular return home. After a brief spell as Romania’s national team head coach as well as Steaua Bucharest manager, Hagi returned to Galatasaray, where he established himself as a club favourite in the five years he had to spend there as a player. His long-lasting ambition of having an impact on Romanian football would, however, get the better of him yet again, as he was sacked by the Turkish giants after just one year in charge only to return to a city that he could truly call home – Constanta.
The place he was born in and where he played his first stints of professional football would now see a new youth academy established under the Romanian legend’s name – The Gica Hagi Academy. Disgusted by internal football just as much as he was before, Hagi decided to engineer an academy that would act as a catapult for the more talented Romanian youngsters – out of the puddles of Romanian football and into the science and art of the European clubs. He invested a hefty 10 million Euros out of his personal bank account into developing the best youth facilities in Romania, which include catering services, eight playable pitches, staff, equipment and so on. His model wouldn’t stop here, though. As a business that would look to be profitable, he would establish a new football club that wold look to further develop his academy recruits and then hope to sell them abroad for profit. This way he hoped to provide a fresh influx of talent to the struggling national team. The club would be called ’Football Club Viitorul’, which translates as ’The Future Football Club’ and would start operating professionally in 2009, in the third division of Romanian Football.
Three years later and the club is already in the Liga I – the top flight of the Romanian football. The model has been a sensational success, developing a number of great talents that big European clubs jumped on straight away. Out of the more notable ones are Cristian Manea – a right back who at 16 years of age broke the record to become the youngest ever player to make his appearance for the senior national team. He was signed by Chelsea last year for an undisclosed fee. Razvan Marin – sold to Standard Liege last summer for 2.5 Million Euros, and the revelation and captain of the team since 2013: Ianis Hagi. Yes, that would be the son of Gheorghe himself, already displaying a very similar set of qualities to his father’s at a tender age.
A player developed at the club from its’ inception all the way to the first division, Ianis is thought to be the most talented player of his generation as well as a true leader on the pitch. Signed by Fiorentina just this summer for a 2.5 Million Euro fee, the hopes, as well as the expectations for the young stalwart, are as high as they get, partly based on the weight that his last name holds. A key role in his progression was played by Gica Hagi’s decision to manage his own team starting from 2013, thus becoming the owner, president and coach of the club all at the same time. Accusations of nepotism quickly faded away as Gica managed to get the best out of his own son by giving him the armband as well as increased game-time in the first division. As a result, Ianis carried the team year after year until it became obvious that a 17-year-old young Hagi needs a bigger stage than the Romanian First Division to try himself at.
Fast forward to present day and Viitorul are a club with a fluctuating value of 18 to 20 Million Euros, with a very healthy looking balance, an exceptional scouting network as well as state of the art facilities at every level. Their squad features academy graduates at an average rate of 70% and more importantly, they are currently first in the Liga I league table, holding a 2 point lead over Steaua after 21 matches. ’Pustii lui Hagi’, or ’Hagi’s kids’ as their nickname has become, are showing some of the best football in the league with an average squad age of just 22. The current season also marked the debut on the European stage for Hagi’s team, having gotten as far as the Europa League 3rd qualifying round.
Considering the above-mentioned drop in quality standards in the Romanian Liga I, Hagi’s Viitorul isn’t finding it too much of a challenge to test themselves against the likes of Steaua or Dinamo, both having been beaten heavily by Hagi’s team in recent years.
Either by choice or by force, most of the clubs in the league have stuck with the Patron model that saw Romanian football turned to shambles. There are very few signs of initiative from investors or from the FA itself when it comes to the redevelopment of the infrastructure. The league has lost a great deal of its continental appeal and the Government’s attitude towards developing sport hasn’t changed much since the nineties. All in all, the stage is almost identical to the one you’d find 10 or even 20 years ago.
All with the exception of one key element that constantly looks to sway Romanian Football onto better paths. An almost god-like figure for Romanian Football by this point, Gheorghe Hagi’s role as a player was to give a generation lost in the despair of the unknown a reason to dream of better things. And he did that by exceeding everyone’s limits of imagination. His most recent contribution off the pitch, however, look like they have the potential to change something far more radical in Romanian football. One thing is for sure... Viitorul is a sporting miracle given the conditions and domestic contexts the club operates in.
Whether this will be the club that produces the next ’Golden Generation’ or an even better one is a matter that only time can tell.