Wherever he played, Gheorghe Hagi left an indelible mark. He is widely regarded as Romania’s greatest-ever footballer, and achieved the rare distinction of playing for both Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
His most successful years, however, were with Steaua Bucharest, Turkish giants Galatasaray and, of course, Romania’s national side. An extravagantly gifted, creative and skilful footballer, Hagi is rightly considered one of the great talents of his generation.
Continuing our series of interviews with players involved in the crucial work of developing football, FIFA.com speaks to this Romanian icon about his glorious career and his role in furthering the beautiful game.
FIFA.com: Can you tell us about how your football career began? How were you spotted?
Gheorghe Hagi: Well, I’ve enjoyed football as long as I can remember. When I was three, my parents made me practice at a professional level in Constanta, for a soccer club, on the recommendation of a school colleague. At the age of 11 I already had participated in a professional competition called the Cupa Sperantei, where for two years in a row I was named best player and also top scorer.
What do you think of football development these days and of FIFA’s level of investment? Does the world governing body play an essential role?
Each programme organised by FIFA to promote soccer in the less developed areas is a good and welcomed initiative, and creates an essential element within the communities concerned. FIFA’s concern about ensuring equality, fair play and the globalisation of football is admirable.
What is your opinion of women’s football?
The quality of the game increases from tournament to tournament. It’s strange but at the same time beautiful for us men to see how women are playing and evolving.
Some ex-professional players have become involved in beach soccer. Have you also tried your hand at this discipline?
I admire the people who have become involved in this. After quitting football at a professional level, I took part in a few beach soccer tournaments myself. Having been born at the seaside, I’m very familiar with beach soccer. Nowadays, the game is everywhere.
Like beach soccer, futsal is developing all over the world. What do you make of its rapid expansion?
As I said before, football is everywhere: indoor, on grass, on the street, on synthetic fields. Football has become a religion.
Your career took you to several different clubs, and football has evolved greatly since you started playing. What is your perception of modern-day football?
Technique always defeats strength. Today it’s a trend to rely both on players’ individual technique and also on tactics based on collective technique.
How can a player set about emulating your achievements?
By being patient and tenacious, and by finding a team that believes in him, that gives him a regular place in the side, that helps him grow and keeps him on an even keel.
You were an idol for many youngsters, but who were your heroes when you were growing up?
When I was a child we did not get to see many international games but, even so, I was aware that the greatest player was Johan Cruyff. When I went to Barcelona in 1994, he was the coach, and I went because of him. It was great, even though I didn’t always get a game. Working with him, I fulfilled my potential. He was amazing - the best. The Romanian who impressed me as a child was [Anghel] Iordanescu, a creative player, and left-footed too. Later, he was my coach at Steaua and then in the national side, which was an indescribable feeling for me.
What are the main difference between professional and amateur football?
Quality in every area: from organisation to players and exposure.
What is your own involvement in grassroots football?
I’ve put in place a unique project in Romania, the Gheorghe Hagi Soccer Academy. I’ve invested in infrastructure and created a special training ground with eight soccer fields, accommodation and restaurants for the players. The academy receives around 280 players from all age groups, and 66 of them take part in our sport/accommodation/school program. Only three years after the academy was founded, it became the best training centre in Romania for all age categories, promoting 22 players to the national set-up.