Long Reads

Ianis Hagi: The Destined Leader of Romania’s Golden Generation Vol.2

Tuesday June 30, 1998, Bordeaux, France. Croatia beat Romania 1-0 in the Round of 16, thanks to a Davor Suker penalty-kick just before the break, and knock them out of the World Cup.

Elimination at the hands of mighty Croatia would bring down the curtain on an extraordinary generation led by the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’, Gheorghe Hagi.

Since that bitter day in southwestern France, Romania haven’t managed to qualify for any of the last five World Cups.

Romanian football was in danger of being thrown into turmoil as it couldn’t put together a group of players that would attempt to reach the highs of the Golden Generation.

A solution was needed in order to revive the country’s most popular sport. Someone had to come up with an idea and who better to do it than Romania’s most beloved football player?

In 2009, Hagi took a step that may change the country’s modern football history. He created his own football club, Viitorul Constanța, and enrolled them in Romanian Football’s third tier.

At the same time, he found the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy, with the sole purpose of feeding Viitorul with the country’s best talents.

His vision was clear. Hagi wanted to bring together the best Romanian prodigies and create a fellowship environment to help them flourish in football while creating a compact group of players who will get to grow up together.

To lay the foundation of his project, he provided the kids with eight state-of-the-art pitches, accommodation, catering facilities and education programs.

Hagi built a strong infrastructure and sent out scouters to comb not only the region, but the whole country. The only thing he was missing was a leader – a player who could captain this side in the future and set the tone for the rejuvenation of Romanian football.

He didn’t have to look far. Enter Ianis Hagi.

Ianis was born on October 22, 1998, in Istanbul, Turkey. Two days after his wife, Marilena, gave birth, Gheorghe produced one of his many extraordinary performances for Galatasaray.

Nicknamed “Comandante” by the Turkish side’s fans, Gheorghe led his team to a comeback 3-1 victory over Samsunspor, teeing up Hakan Sükür and Hakan Ünsal for Galatasaray’s second and third goal, respectively.

‘Cimbom’ would go on to win their third consecutive league title in one of Hagi’s most fruitful seasons throughout his splendid career.

With the legacy of his father’s career hanging over him, Ianis wouldn’t hesitate a moment to choose his own path.

When he was 10 years old, his father asked him and his sister, Kira, to break down their future goals.

Kira asked Gheorghe to give her two weeks to make her own decision, but Ianis had no doubts. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a professional football player.

Although Marilena planned to send her son to the Cambridge University, Gheorghe asked him to follow his heart and in 2009, Ianis joined his father’s academy.

“It was a little bit difficult at the beginning, I was young – just ten years old – and I didn’t know how to make my team-mates feel good around me but afterwards I realised it’s just football – it doesn’t matter who you are or who’s son you are,” he confessed.

“Then everything just came naturally, creating friendships with my team-mates and I’m still keeping in touch with them ten years on.”

Five years later, in September 2014, Gheorghe appointed himself coach of Viitorul Constanța. By December, he would hand Ianis his professional debut at the age of 16 in a 1–2 home defeat at the hands of FC Botoșani.

A few months later, he became the youngest player to captain a team in the history of Romanian top-flight football and The Guardian named him among the 50 best young players in the world born in 1998.

“I don’t feel pressure because of the name, I was raised with pressure,” he said in an interview for UEFA.

“I am very used to the captain’s armband because I have been captain for all the teams I’ve played for, at the academy and for youth national teams.

“When I was a little boy I did not know what the name Hagi meant to Romania and Turkey, but I have since realised.

“I am well aware of how much work he put in to reach the highest level. Now he is my coach and I have to listen to him.”

His three goals in 31 games for Viitorul Constanța were enough to hand him the prize of the Romanian Young Player of the Year in 2015.

Several European clubs took notice of his talent and in July 2016, Fiorentina came knocking.

An agreement was reached between the two clubs and Ianis joined the Viola in exchange for one million euros.

Former Fiorentina striker Adrian Mutu praised the youngster’s talent, but warned him that succeeding in the Serie A is anything but easy.

“Ianis has all the qualities to succeed at Fiorentina,” said Mutu, who is Romania’s joint all-time leading scorer with 35 goals, along with Iani’s father, Gheorghe.

“They are the best club for him to improve and his father did the right thing in this regard.

“Ianis gets better game by game, but Serie A is something different altogether and now it’s up to him.”

In his official presentation as a new Fiorentina player, Ianis stressed that he is willing to grab any opportunity that would be given to him to show off his quality.

However, things didn’t work as he might have expected in Florence. Ianis played 48 minutes across two Serie A games in 18 months.

Gheorghe exploded against Fiorentina and decided to bring his son back to Romania.

“[Fiorentina’s] sporting director [Pantaleo Corvino] does everything,” he noted.

“It’s worse than in Romania than during the dictatorship of the general [Nicolae Ceausescu, between 1967 and 1989].

“In Florence, everyone was curious to see Ianis play. He did great things with the Primavera but they didn’t let him grow.

“Fiorentina has lost a great player that one day will be able to compete for the Ballon d’Or.”

Ianis moved back to Viitorul Constanța in 2017 and was nominated for the European Golden Boy prize for two years in a row.

He netted 20 goals in 53 matches and attracted interest from several clubs, including Barcelona.

However, Ianis’ uncle, Viitorul Constanța director and member of Romania’s Golden Generation, Gheorghe Popescu, dismissed the possibility of his nephew signing for the Blaugrana.

” There have been discussions, but the project from Barcelona doesn’t interest us because they would take Ianis on loan,” he explained.

“Ianis has reached an important level, given man good teams are interested.”

In June 2019, Ianis returned to Italy, this time to participate in the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship.

Exactly 21 years after his father led Romania to their last World Cup, Ianis inspired his team to back to back wins against Croatia and England.

After drawing in the last game with France, Romania finished top of their group and qualified to the semi-finals, where they were knocked out by runners-up Germany.

Despite their 4-2 defeat against the Germans, Romania managed to give fans a thrilling ride and high anticipation of what is to come.

While hundreds of Romanians travelled to Italy to attend their national team’s games, others back home tuned in the TV to watch Ianis and his teammates taking the tournament by storm.

“Now [Viitorul Constanța] have 11 players in the under-21s,” Ianis told Sky Sports.

“It’s a great impact. It helps us. We grew up from 10 or 16 years old in the same place.

“We ate at the same table; we went to the same school. It feels really good and it helps us with the national team.”

A few weeks after the European Under-21 Championship drew to a close, Ianis signed for Belgian side, Genk.

In his team’s first game of the season, he came off the bench to score the winner in a 2-1 victory against Kortrijk.

About a month later, a video of him converting two penalties in a match against Sint-Truiden, taking one penalty with each foot, became viral.

“Since I was a kid, [my father] always told me that it’s really important to have both [feet] in football,” he stressed.

“At two or three years old I have videos at home in which I kick only with my left foot, but since then he taught me to play also with my right foot.

“Now I have both feet. I feel better shooting with the right, but my control of the ball is with my left.”

After featuring in all but one of Genk’s games in the Champions League group stage, he joined Rangers on loan on the January’s transfer deadline day.

Under Steven Gerrard, he has managed to impress with his performances at the Ibrox Stadium, having netted three goals and assisted another two in 10 games.

His first goal with the Scottish side was a late winner in 2-1 victory over Hibernian. It came in Gheorghe’s 55th Birthday and Ianis took to social media to dedicate it to his father.

“We’re different types of players [with my father], even though we play in the same position (attacking midfield),” he said in an interview for FIFA back in September.

“He was much faster and predominantly left footed, while I’m a different player but I hope I have the same mentality and ambition.

“I still have to learn from him because he knows how to move around the field from that position.”

Ianis is not and may never become Gheorghe. He is, however, one of the most promising footballers of a new exciting group of Romanian talented players.

It remains to be seen whether, alike his father, he can become the leader of Romania’s Golden Generation Vol.2.

“My father’s legacy to me is his overall game vision,” he stressed.

“[However], I am Ianis and want to stay Ianis.”

About the author

Panos Kostopoulos

Born in Greece, studied journalism in Preston (yes Preston, England) and lives in Madrid. Addicted to football and Liverpool FC.