Hagi, the Maradona of the Carpathians

Like the Argentine, Romania’s Gheorghe Hagi was an influential footballer who could turn matches on his own.

Romanian Gheorghe Hagi opens his arms as England's Sol Campbell hits the field during the1998 Soccer World Cup group G match between England and Romania.   -  AFP

For his exceptional dribbling, playmaking skills and that lethal left foot, Gheorghe Hagi was rightly called the Maradona of the Carpathians. Like the Argentine, Hagi was an influential footballer who could turn matches on his own, and the Romanian enjoyed a long, successful career in Spain, Italy and Turkey – the greatest footballer to emerge from his country.

Hagi joined Steaua București in 1987, and the team dominated the domestic tourneys. He was linked to moves to AC Milan and Bayern Munich, but these were blocked by his government. But the fall of communism and Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 opened avenues for him, and his talent took him to Spain and to Real Madrid.

Gallery of Greats: Sportstar series on World Cup heroes

Hagi came to the 1990 World Cup in Italy as Romania’s trump card. After missing the first game due to a suspension, he took over the role of playmaker as Romania progressed from a tough group that including defending champion Argentina. But in the second round, Romania lost to Ireland on penalties after a goalless match in which the Carpathians and Hagi in particular created more chances than their defensive opponents.

 

By the time the 1994 World Cup began in the USA, Hagi had established himself as one of the best midfielders in the world. At 29, he was at his peak and gave his finest performance in a World Cup. As captain, he led from the front with assists and goals. A 40-yard lob against Colombia was a stunning exhibition of opportunism and judgement, and was one of the best goals of the tournament.

Romania topped its group and then beat Argentina in the second round to enter the quarterfinals for the first time. Against the South Americans, Hagi was at his best, harrying his opponents with deception and skill, setting up one goal and scoring another. Romania then lost to an inspired Swedish side on penalties, but Hagi was named in the FIFA All-Star Team after the tournament.

France 1998 was Hagi’s last hurrah. Though he was 33, he was still an inspirational figure in the midfield. England bore the brunt of his wizardry as he set up the winning goal with a deft flick with the outside of his left foot from an acute angle. Romania topped its group to move into the second round for the third time in a row, but it unexpectedly lost to debutant Croatia.

  Dugout videos