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Gheorghe Hagi belongs to the small group of players who have played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and, unlike Luis Figo Hagi managed to keep his legacy at both intact.
Possibly known as Romania’s greatest-ever player with 124 appearances and 35 goals for the national team, Hagi enjoyed a professional career of almost two decades at several clubs in four different countries – Romania, Spain, Italy and Turkey.
Named Romanian Footballer of the Year no less than seven times in his career, Hagi played as an attacking midfielder for the majority of his career and although he preferred to use his left foot he was in fact equally adept with his right.
Starting his career in communist Romania, Hagi came under the control of the Romanian Football Federation who allocated him to play for Universitatea Craiova and then Sportul Studentesc. He made well over a century of appearances at Sportul, scoring at a rate of more than one every two games.
There then came a controversial move to Steaua București în late 1986. As winners of the 1985-86 European Cup, Bucuresti qualified for the next season’s European Super Cup final against Dynamo Kyiv. Signed originally on a one-game loan, Hagi scored the winning goal in the match and Bucuresti simply refused to let him return to Sportul. It was a strange state of affairs, but the Romanian Football Federation backed Bucuresti, and so Hagi stayed there for the next three seasons.
Following the fall of communism, he was permitted to move abroad after the 1990 World Cup and joined Real Madrid. Although he experienced some highlights at Madrid, his time there was largely uneventful and only won the Spanish Super Cup in the two years he spent there. Hagi struggled to settle and the large turnover of managers at the Bernabeu didn’t help. Hagi felt that certain teammates did not welcome his arrival and so two years into a four-year contract he decided to leave.
His career seemingly then took a downwards swing. At the age of 27, Hagi left and joined Brescia in Serie A in Italy.
Joining a perceived ‘smaller club’ was a shock to say the least, and it seemed apparent to many that Hagi had taken a large step backwards. Yet it proved to be just the shot in the arm his career needed. He regained the confidence lost at Madrid, and although Brescia were relegated in his first season at the club, instant promotion was achieved the next season and a return to Seri A. It was this second season in particular that did the most to restore Hagi’s form and confidence with his goals a vital contribution to Bresci’s promotion.
This brought Hagi back into the limelight and this time it was Barcelona that moved to sign him. There then followed a repeat of his spell at Madrid with two relatively unsuccessful and unhappy seasons being shunted in and out of the team by Johan Cruyff
Next stop was Turkey and to the highlight years of his career as Hagi signed for Galatasaray. It was here that the legend of Hagi was finally cemented. Staying for five seasons, Hagi helped Galatasaray win four league titles and two Turkish cups. The UEFA Cup and Super Cup were also won in 2000.
Hagi’s international career lasted 17 years from his debut against Northern Ireland in 1983 up to the 2000 European Championships when he ended his career in ignominy being sent off in Romania’s quarter-final defeat to Italy. Some of the highlights of his international career included leading Romania to the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals where they lost on penalties to Sweden, and scoring a wonder goal against Colombia in the same tournament.
A long-lasting career, Hagi ended up a legend in both Romania and Turkey and yet his career was not without controversy. As well as the furore over his transfer to Bucharest, there were times when Hagi was criticised in some quarters for a spikey temperament along with a perceived lack of work rate and a reluctance to track back at times.
Hagi could be hot-headed and was sent off a number of times in his career including in the aforementioned UEFA Cup Final against Arsenal.
Two-footed with an upper-strength that belied his relatively short physical stature, Hagi is rightly remembered as a tremendous player. He often played as a typical Number 10 playing in a ‘free role’ but he was also able to adapt and perform in more rigid positions and styles such as in midfield or as a second striker.
His legacy continues to this day as he has embarked on a long and relatively successful managerial career with spells at former clubs Galatasaray and Buceuresti as well as the Romanian national side on his CV.