Hagi: Maradona of the Carpathians
As one of the most skilful players of his generation, Romania's Gheorghe Hagi earned the nickname 'Maradona of the Carpathians' with worthy comparisons to the great Argentinean to be found both in playing style and temperament.
Undoubtedly the finest player to have emerged from his country, Hagi's remarkable 16-year international career consisted of appearances at three World Cups, while his domestic exploits took in the sights of top European clubs Barcelona, Real Madrid and Galatasaray.
His creative brilliance was first spotted in his homeland while he was still a teenager and he eventually made the move to Romania's top club at the time, Steaua Bucharest, in 1987. By then, he had already been on the international radar for some time and had announced his arrival on the scene as a 19-year-old with a debut goal against Northern Ireland in 1984 and, although Romania would not qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, by the time Italia '90 rolled around, Hagi was beginning to reach his peak.
Piling up the domestic silverware with his club in the late 80s, Hagi's skill and control of the ball allowed his teams the freedom to attack and his goal return of 76 in 91 games for Steaua was incredible for a midfielder. Despite being just 5'8'', he was fully able to command the centre of the pitch, often drifting around to direct the play. He displayed great strength when having to use his body to shield the ball from larger opponents.
Hardly a young buck when he made his first appearance at a World Cup at the age of 25, Romania failed to get the best out of him in Italy and he was suspended for their opening 2-0 win over the Soviet Union. Indeed, having failed to break through the Cameroon defence in the next game, he was taken off on 55 minutes to be replaced by Ilie Dumitrescu before Roger Milla's two late goals saw the Africans win 2-1.
His contribution in the 1-1 draw against Argentina that sealed Romania's progress to the knockout stages in the following game was more telling. Starting off a move down the right with a delicious backheel, Hagi looked on as Gavril Balint equalised. The Romanians were through as a second-placed team. It was emblematic of Hagi's creative spark and something that Romanian fans would come to see a lot more of in coming years.
Of course, they would also see a lot of the kind of behaviour he showed against Maradona when the two No.10s clashed during the match. Both players were forced to endure tough tackles (mostly from each other) but Hagi was booked for a petulant kick out at the Argentine when he thought he had been fouled first. With great genius often come questions about temperament; Maradona was certainly guilty. Hagi's reaction when felled by a mistimed tackle from John Aldridge, as Romania went out on penalties to Ireland in the Second Round, highlighted his own flair for the dramatic.
By the time USA '94 arrived, Hagi's abilities had made him one of the best attacking players around, despite his growing reputation as a somewhat temperamental performer. A disappointing high-profile spell with Real Madrid had seen him leave after two years to join Italian club Brescia, but his performances in the States would put him firmly back into the spotlight and earn him a move to Barcelona.
From the opening game of the World Cup, it was clear that Romania had a star on their hands after all. Having needed Wales's Paul Bodin to miss a penalty in qualifying in order to make the finals, the Romanians faced Colombia - a side that was on everyone's lips after their 5-0 hammering of Argentina in the CONMEBOL rounds - and, after 34 minutes, Romania were 2-0 up and Hagi had scored one of the most memorable goals of the tournament. A few minutes previously, Hagi had attempted a 40-yard chip over Oscar Cordoba which the goalkeeper had only just turned round the post. His second try found the net as he arrowed a shot from the left across the goal and into the far corner that caught Cordoba flailing.
Romania glided to a 3-1 win over the Colombians and, although Hagi scored in the next game against Switzerland, they were beaten 4-1. A trademark left-footed thunderbolt proved little consolation against the rampant Swiss, but he pulled the strings in midfield to ensure a 1-0 win over the US hosts in the next game and received worldwide praise for his passing and creative influence.
Going through as top of their group, Hagi then led Romania to a Second Round win over Argentina. Regarded by many as the best game of the '94 tournament, the Romanian underdogs upset Alfio Basile's men 3-2 and, once again, had Hagi to thank.
In searing heat, Ilie Dumitrescu's opening free-kick came straight from the Hagi-highlight reel and the No.10 then displayed his own influence for the second. Picking up the ball wide on the left, one pass took out four Argentine defenders before he took the return and then rolled it with consummate ease past the three defenders who had tracked back to supply Dumitrescu with a tap-in. It was a moment worthy of any great name in the game and Hagi would add further gloss with a goal of his own on the break, slotted coolly home with the wrong foot.
Hagi's genius is best remembered when he had the ball at his feet, but his unique personality ensured that he made plenty of contributions when it wasn't. During the tournament, he completely blanked team-mate Ioan Lupescu when he dared to ask for ball for a throw-in and was seen placing the wall for his goalkeeper when his side gave away a free-kick against Argentina just outside the box.
His influence over the team was such that he was allowed to get away with such acts. Few would dare to challenge his authority, especially when he was busy leading the side to their best ever World Cup finish.
Of course it had to end, and Romania's run to the quarter-finals came to a close in penalty heartbreak again as they conceded a late equaliser in extra-time to the ten men of Sweden and then saw two spot-kicks saved in the shootout.
On the back of the praise he got in the States, Hagi won a move to Barcelona, but again failed to sparkle as he did in the yellow of his country and struggled with disciplinary problems before moving to Turkey two years before the next World Cup in France.
When Romania had qualified for France '98, Hagi had said it would be his last tournament and, as age began to catch up with him, his influence on the side waned. With the team spirit boosted by the entire squad's peroxide hair, he was played for just 70 minutes in the first two group game wins against Colombia and England. However, he showed he was still capable of the odd piece of brilliance as he set up Viorel Moldovan for the first goal against the English with a delicate lob.
Making it through to the Second Round after a 1-1 draw with Tunisia, Romania faced up against Croatia, but failed to impress in a 1-0 defeat and Hagi bowed out of the World Cup having shown only a few glimpses of his former self.
He would make a real impact in Turkey as manager Fatih Terim built a team that would win four league titles and a UEFA Cup, but despite his claims that he would retire from internationals, he made a comeback for Euro 2000. However, like another great midfielder, Zindine Zidane, Hagi's international career ended in disgrace as he was sent off in his 125th and last match for Romania in a losing quarter-final against Italy.
This wonderfully gifted midfielder will always be remembered as one of the more unpredictable talents of his time but, like many of greats before him, his grace and creativity have ensured that his legend is written in stone.