The traditional playmaker or No10 has always set pulses racing. One such magician was Romania’s Gheorghe Hagi, a creative genius blessed with a skill set that allowed him to make the extraordinary look ordinary.
Hagi lit up the game with his goals, sublime passing and mazy dribbles, making an indelible mark throughout a career that took him from Steaua Bucharest to Galatasaray via Barcelona and Real Madrid.
In his native Romania, the man they call the Maradona of the Carpathians is not so much a legend as a mythical figure. Working magic with his wondrous left foot, he inspired the Tricolorii to some of their most impressive performances.
The highlight of his 124-cap international career was a stellar display at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, where he led his team to the last eight, a stage the Romanians also reached at UEFA EURO 2000.
A year later he hung up his boots at the age of 36 to become national team coach, staying in the job for two years before continuing his career in the dugout in Turkey with Bursaspor and Galatasaray and in Romania with Politehnica Timisoara and Steaua.
He branched out in 2009, opening the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy, which now supplies talented youngsters to Viitorul Constanta, a recently founded club owned and managed by Hagi himself.
Having turned 50 earlier this month, the tireless Hagi is as active and inventive now as he once was on the pitch. Reflecting on his career and the plight of the modern-day playmaker, he gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You’ve been a player, coach and club president. Which of the three has given you most enjoyment?
Gheorghe Hagi: I’m really enjoying coaching right now, but I loved playing more than anything else. Football has always seemed to me to be a very easy game.
You won a number of titles during your career and played in some prestigious competitions. Looking back, what achievement are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of our performance at the 1994 World Cup. I played the best football of my career there and that Romania team was at its peak too. We were good enough to beat anyone and we had every chance to win the World Cup. We were so close, and then we had those last five minutes [Romania conceded a late equaliser to Sweden in extra time and went out on penalties].
You scored a famous lob against Colombia in the group phase at USA 1994. Was that your most memorable goal?
I scored a few of them. I have great memories of my winning free-kick for Steaua Bucharest against Dynamo Kiev in the 1986 UEFA Super Cup in Monaco, and the party that followed (laughs). I also enjoyed the two goals I scored from the halfway line for Real and Barça. But I obviously remember my goal against Colombia at the World Cup in 1994, from out wide. It’s hard for me to pick just one out of all those goals, and, in any case, I think I left behind some pretty good memories at all the teams I played for.
Is there one club that’s particularly close to your heart?
I’d love to say Romania, but you’ve asked about clubs. I’ve honestly loved all of them, without exception. All these clubs, in their own different ways, have played very important parts in my career and my development as a player. I worked hard and I did my very best at every club I played for. That was my way of loving them. And though I spent more time at Galatasaray than anywhere else – five years – I’ll never forget the times I had at Farul, Steaua, Real, Barça and Brescia, or with Romania.
You’re one of a small group of players to have run out for Real Madrid and Barcelona. What do you make of their rivalry?
It’s good for both teams. It helps them develop, progress and motivate their players. Los clásicos provide quality football and they help take the sport forward. That’s what you have to remember above all else.
Are you a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo fan?
I really like both of them. I would have loved to have coached them, to have the pair of them in my team. I must confess to having a bit of a soft spot for the left-footed one though. I was a left-footed player myself, which explains it (smiles).
Why do you think we are seeing fewer and fewer players like you, the traditional No10?
I think there’s a shortfall in training. I’m sure there are lots of creative players around, but they need looking after more and they need confidence. Maybe they’re not getting enough. If you don’t have these players in the final third of the pitch, though, matches can get tricky and the football can get ugly. I think the game needs these No10s, players who can bring a touch of fantasy and creativity. Scoring goals is part of the essence of the sport, and we should make it illegal for games to end 0-0. If you start getting 3-2 and 4-4 scorelines, the stadiums would be full.
Tricolorii fans have had little to cheer about in recent years. Why is it that Romania have qualified for just one major tournament since 2000 (UEFA EURO 2008, when they were knocked out in the first round without winning a match)?
Because we weren’t able to create a good generation of new players after we retired. Football is a team sport. We’ve got two or three good players at the moment but we don’t have what you’d call a ‘team’. We’ve got good players but they’re not a unit yet. They’re not thinking like a group. Even so, I’m hopeful we can qualify for the EUROs and that we’ll manage to create a new generation of talented footballers, like we were in our day.
You coached Romania in 2001. Is that an experience you’d like to repeat?
I can’t say no to the Romanian national team. You never know, and we’ll just have to see. It’s also depends on me and what I can accomplish as a coach. But, yes, I really enjoyed being in charge of the team, even if, technically speaking, I was on my own a little bit. It wasn’t a problem though, and I enjoyed my work.
Do you have any regrets about your career?
The Ballon d’Or! I should have won it in 1994. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was the best player at the 1994 World Cup, but unfortunately for me Romania lost in the quarter-finals, which perhaps cost me the Ballon d’Or. I know that I was at my peak and that I was very close to getting it. It wasn’t to be, though.