To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Romania chose Gheorghe Hagi as their Golden Player.
"Football is my life. It means everything to me and has made me the person I am today." Gheorghe Hagi has often repeated these words and it may explain why the man named Romania's player of the 20th century has always wanted to give something back to the game.
A football fanatic from a young age, the ball had for him a magical quality. It was evident from early on that he was a huge talent, and he proceeded to represent Romania at Under-16, U17 and U18 levels. During this period he lived and was educated at the Luceafarul football school with his fellow members of the junior national squads, and it came as no surprise when some of the big clubs came knocking at his door.
After a spell with FC Farul Constanta, the 18-year-old Hagi moved in 1983 to Bucharest side CF Sportul Studentesc. During his three years there before a transfer to FC Steaua Bucureşti, he scored 58 goals in 108 appearances, and he looks back on this time with affection. "It was a wonderful period and it helped me to improve greatly," he recalled, and his performances were duly noted.
The coach of the Romania national team at the time was Mircea Lucescu, and in August 1983 he awarded Hagi the first of 125 senior caps in a friendly against Norway. Although the match ended in a 0-0 draw, it was the start of a glorious international career which would span 17 years, and leave him as Romania's most capped player and, with 35 goals to his credit, their leading scorer.
In October 1985 Hagi reached another milestone. Lucescu, well known for his penchant for promoting young players, gave the 20-year-old the captain's armband for a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Northern Ireland. This was the first of 65 occasions on which Hagi would lead his country, and he understood well the importance of the responsibility that came with it. "The national team is something holy for me, and being captain my duties are that much greater," he said.
Hagi played in three World Cups and three UEFA European Championships for his country, and not even a red card in his last international against Italy could detract from a wonderful international career. With Steaua, meanwhile, he won three Romanian titles, two Romanian Cups, the European Champion Clubs' Cup and the UEFA Super Cup, before spending the remaining 11 years of his playing days abroad.
Following the 1990 World Cup, Hagi joined Real Madrid CF, and moved again in 1992 to Italian side Brescia Calcio, where he teamed up once more with coach Lucescu. After a magnificent 1994 World Cup he returned to Spain to represent a FC Barcelona side then managed by his idol Johan Cruyff.
A surprise switch to Turkish side Galatasaray AŞ in 1996 showed that rumours of his footballing demise were wildy exaggerated, Hagi winning a mountain of silverware over a five-year period. His affection for the club was evident. "Galatasaray is my second home after Romania," he said before finally retiring in April 2001, a year after helping the club capture the UEFA Cup – Turkey's first triumph in UEFA club competition.
Hagi moved into coaching in 2001 and has had spells in charge of the Romania national team, Bursaspor and Galatasaray in Turkey, and FC Timişoara and Steaua back in his home country.
His influence is still felt today in Romania through the Gheorghe Hagi academy he established in Constanta, his home city on the Black Sea coast, which educates youngsters from the age of six as well as producing players for its associated club, second-tier FC Viitorul Constanţa. He may have been nicknamed 'the Sultan' by Galatasaray fans in Turkey, but in Romania he remains 'the King'.
Last updated: 28 January 2011
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