For many Romanians, Gheorghe Hagi is the embodiment of talent and the epitome of Romanian soccer at its finest. Romania’s best footballing export, Hagi was a master and commander in a time when Romania had been the very definition of the ever present tournament dark horse. Whether for his nation, which he represented in three European Championships and three World Cups, or for his teams Steaua Bucharest, Galatasaray, Brescia, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the playmaker has been an icon. At Galatasaray, he was a legend that is adored to this day. In his birthplace, he was Regele (‘the king’). Everywhere, he was nicknamed quite classically ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians'. The beauty of Hagi’s game was his unpredictability, which was emphasized through his outstanding technique and magnificent shots on goal.
Comfortable on both legs, competitors could rarely read his play. He had a variety of tricks and abilities, a terrifying burst of speed, and great vision, both during the open shot both in open play and from set plays. See a montage of his best targets and you soon realize that Hagi did not believe neither in the laws of physics nor in space. Whether 10, 30, or even 50 yards from target, the volatile power in his left foot meant he was a goalkeeper’s greatest threat, from any angle on the field. Frequently, his shots were hit with such brutal power that goalkeepers would just see them when it was far too late, maybe belatedly stretching an arm out, only for the ball to whisk by into the back of the goal.
It had been in the 1994 World Cup in the US that Hagi shot to popularity on the world stage. In their opening game, 3-1 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, his utterly crazy lob from the left wing helped Romania to secure a massive win over Colombia. The moment is now a staple of the FIFA World Cup greatest ever. Gheorghe Hagi attracted world-wide acclaim for the manner in which he dictated play in the midfield. At the stage of the last 16, the Romanians defeated Argentina 3-2 in what was appropriately considered to be the most exciting match of the tournament.
The win against Argentina ended up being the high point of Romania’s Golden Generation and Hagi himself; although Hagi would appear in later tournaments, he never received the same acclaim or had the same impact has he did in the World Cup of 1994. However, this was just one of several highlights in the career of Hagi.
He had been a global name by the time he joined his nation's leading team, Steaua Bucharest in 1987, going on to score prolifically in the Romanian top flight and helping them to the European Cup final in 1989. After short stints with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Hagi moved to Galatasaray in 1996. Shortly after, he became a vital player within the team that won four successive league titles and controlled Turkish football, while also lifting the UEFA Cup in 2000 beating Arsenal on penalties. Gheorghe Hagi was a hero to the Galatasaray supporters and those wonderful years brought down the curtain on his career.