Like many of the game’s greats, Gheorghe Hagi was a man of many nicknames. To the wider world, he rose to prominence as ‘the Maradona of the Carpathians’. For fans of Galatasaray, he was 'Commandante' (The Commander). In Romania though, they afforded him a simpler title. To them, he was and remains 'Regele' (The King).

It’s a tag that might seem grand but, in Hagi’s home country, his position as the nation’s greatest player is utterly beyond dispute. Either side of this brilliant midfielder’s 1990s pomp, there has been little in the history of Romania’s national team to stir the passions. Hagi, though, possessed an uncanny ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Skill, vision, ferocious shooting ability and a propensity for the unexpected made him one of the finest natural footballers of his generation. Though he would often be seen directing and berating team-mates, there was a joyful exuberance to his play – a genuine pleasure at being on the ball – that shone through in everything Hagi did. He was, in short, a born footballer.

His parents recognised this from the earliest stage and, at just three years old, the young Gheorghe was sent for professional-standard training at a club in Constanta. “By the age of 11,” Hagi told, “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.”

Big clubs, mixed fortunes
Glory beckoned, and in 1983, aged 18, Hagi won the first of 124 senior international caps. It would, however, take another four years for him to earn the first big move with a switch to Steaua Bucharest, and for much of his career, his successes at club level did not match the achievements he enjoyed with the national team. Trophies did come with Steaua, with whom he won the league and cup double three years running, but a 1990 move to Real Madrid proved unfulfilling and largely unsuccessful.

Within two years, Hagi had been offloaded to Brescia, where he suffered the indignity of relegation in his first season. Indeed, it was in Serie B – at 29 and approaching his peak – that this gifted playmaker warmed up for the FIFA World Cup™ that would ultimately define his career. It was his performances at USA 1994 that earned him a move back to Spain with Barcelona but, again, Hagi struggled to establish himself and was left on the fringes of Johan Cruyff’s dream team. Not that he considered his two-year stint in Catalonia to be time wasted.

“It was great, even though I didn’t always get a game,” he said. “Cruyff must be one of the most creative coaches in football history, because I always loved his ideas and he was always talking about something new. I learned a lot from him and I feel happy and grateful that I had the chance to work with him at Barcelona.”

Yet it took until 1996, when he was 31, for Hagi to finally find a home. That was when he caused a few raised eyebrows by deciding to move to Turkey with Galatasaray. The reason, he said, was that the club exuded a mentality he shared: "Champions who always want to win". Whatever his motivation, Gala proved an inspired choice. By the time he left in 2001, he was almost as beloved in Turkey as in Romania, having inspired Fatih Terim’s side to four successive league titles, a UEFA Cup and, perhaps sweetest of all, a UEFA Super Cup win over former club Real Madrid.

It was during this renaissance in Istanbul that Luis Fernandez observed of the veteran midfielder: “Hagi is like wine. The older it gets, the better it is." This may have been true of the midfielder at club level. Internationally, however, his peak had been reached several years earlier.

American dream
USA 1994 wasn’t his first FIFA World Cup – he had shone in flashes at Italy 1990 – but it was to be the tournament at which he announced himself as one of the world’s elite players. His first match alone, a 3-1 win over the much-hyped Colombians, witnessed a masterclass of inventive attacking-midfield play, with Hagi setting up two goals either side of a spectacular effort of his own. In 2002, that audacious 40-yard chip from the left touchline finished fifth in a poll to determine the global showpiece’s greatest ever goal.

It was the first of three for Hagi in the US, an experience he remembers with understandable fondness. “It was perfect for me,” he said. “I scored goals that are now among the best goals in World Cup history, and played very well despite the stifling heat. I think we were so unlucky to lose when we did (on penalties to Sweden in the quarter-finals), as at that moment, I was the best player in the tournament. After we left, I lost that position.

“But none of the players from our so-called golden generation will ever forget that competition. I think it was the best ever performance from a Romanian national team, and not just the results, but also our impressive play – the fantasy style of our football.”

Romania and Hagi were back four years later at France 1998, but despite topping a group that included England, Colombia and Tunisia, a last-16 exit to Croatia confirmed that this golden era was nearing its end. Their talisman came out of retirement for one last hurrah at UEFA EURO 2000 but that too ended in disappointment. Like another great midfield artist of that generation, Zinedine Zidane, Hagi’s final international appearance ended in dismissal as he was sent off in a 2-0 quarter-final defeat to Italy.

Not that it tarnished his reputation back home. When asked by UEFA in 2003 to select their ‘Golden Player’ of the past 50 years, Romania replied without hesitation. And while Hagi’s record caps haul has since been surpassed by Dorinel Munteanu and his international goal tally of 35 equalled by Adrian Mutu, no-one can match his standing among the Romanian people.

New adventures
It was that status that resulted in the then 36-year-old being appointed as coach of the national team just months after hanging up his boots, though his tenure was to last just two unhappy years. Like so many great players, success in the dugout has proved more difficult to come by for Hagi than fulfilment on the pitch, with stints at former clubs Galatasaray and Steaua Bucharest among his disappointments.

However, he has also dedicated himself to unearthing Romania’s next Gheorge Hagi by setting up a football academy in his homeland, which caters for around 280 youngsters. Those aspiring footballers there will, as their mentor explained last year, benefit from the best facilities and first-rate coaching.

And should they want a little advice from ‘Regele’, he will tell them of the lesson he learned throughout his glittering career. “Technique always defeats strength.”