Romania have not qualified for a World Cup since 1998 and have reached the European Championships only twice since 2000, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions. They begin their attempt to qualify for Euro 2024 with matches against Andorra and Belarus this month.
Gheorghe Hagi, who illuminated Romania’s run to the World Cup quarter-finals of 1994 and is widely regarded as their best player of all time, is on a mission to transform their fortunes.
“Hagi for president” was chanted by hundreds of thousands back home as Romania beat Colombia, hosts USA and Argentina on their way to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1994. Penalty defeat by Sweden followed, but the wave of unprecedented love towards the nation’s football hero lost little momentum.
Two years later, despite Hagi not running in Romania’s 1996 presidential elections, people still voted for him. They wrote his name out by hand, with the midfielder getting a few thousand votes, more than some of the official candidates.
Over a 29-year professional career that ended at Galatasaray in 2001, Hagi played for Real Madrid and Barcelona and appeared 124 times for his country, scoring a joint record 35 goals. They called him the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’. He placed fourth for the Ballon d’Or in 1994 and Pele included him in a 125-strong list of the world’s best living players in 2004.
Hagi turned to management months after his retirement from professional football. His first job? The Romania national team.
For the ‘King’, as he is known in Romania, it was a rough start. His side lost to Slovenia in the World Cup qualification play-offs and missed out on a place at the tournament for the first time since 1986.
When he was playing, Hagi could decide everything on his own through an unexpected shot, a mazy dribble or a keyhole assist.
“I had personality, I had good ball control and I was fast,” Hagi says. “I grew up with the Netherlands team in the 1970s, with total football. Johan Cruyff was my idol. I wore the number 10 most of the time and I knew what that meant: create a goal or score.
“I wore the number 10 shirt for Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the best teams in the world. My ambition was always to be the best – that was my biggest motivation.”
In management, things seemed more difficult for him. Things did not work out so brilliantly at the start – but the picture is different now.
Now 58, he is the owner and head coach of Farul Constanța, Romania’s current top-flight leaders. After jobs at Galatasaray, Bursaspor and Steaua Bucharest, in 2009 he returned to his hometown of Constanța on the Black Sea coast with a bold ambition.
He started an academy from scratch, investing part of his own fortune and borrowing the rest to support the project. More than £10m was injected to fuel his dream: creating a generation that would get Romania in the fight to win the World Cup.
Hagi still entertains during training sessions with his dribbling skills, free-kick masterclasses and passing abilities. He is the king in his castle, with young prospects’ faces lighting up as he walks past.
When he started the academy, more than 200 kids from all around the country joined. About 100 staff were hired.
The academy took over a third-tier club, Viitorul Constanța, and quickly won consecutive promotions to the top flight. In 2017 the almost unthinkable happened – Hagi’s team won the Romanian title, with cup success following two years later. In 2021 the club merged with the well-supported Farul Constanța, where Hagi’s own journey in football began when he was 10 years old.
A big part of the money Hagi earned as a player is now invested in his club. Farul are one of the youngest teams in Europe, with the club’s philosophy centred around youth development. Recently, Hagi offered a 14-year-old his top-flight debut.
Over the years, teenagers who have impressed have moved abroad, joining Ajax, Fiorentina, Brighton, and Rangers. Almost half of the most recent Romania squad have a background in Hagi’s team, while the percentages in the youth national sides are even more impressive.
One of those who rose through the ranks at the academy is Hagi’s son, Ianis. The 24-year-old is now at Rangers, after playing for Fiorentina and Genk.
“A good player can go out and do his job anywhere,” Hagi says. “The league doesn’t matter. Ianis won the award for Rangers’ best young player before his knee ligament injury (in January 2022), so he adapted fairly well. Bad luck with his injury. But if I never got to play in England, maybe he will – why not?
“I had two opportunities to play in the Premier League and I’m sorry I finally missed both. It’s a country I like and respect. I’m sure fans would have enjoyed my style.”
Tottenham and Newcastle tried to sign Hagi in the 1990s. Cruyff and Barcelona were in the way in 1994. Then Galatasaray tempted him with a big European project close to home two years later.
“I loved Kevin Keegan as a kid – he was one of my idols – so I would have loved to play under him at Newcastle,” Hagi says. “But when Cruyff calls you in person and asks you to go with him to Barcelona, it’s hard to resist. He said I was his favourite number 10.
“Then I opted for Galatasaray. They wanted to build a team that would challenge for continental success. Also, they were closer to Romania, and I always had the idea to return home after football.
“I wrote a book. I put everything inside about my tactics, my philosophy, about how I see football. You have to start with the basics, do the simple things first, then go step by step towards the more complicated. My motto is: I’m born to win, not just to exist. So I’m trying to apply that in everything I do and I want to inspire those I work with to do the same.
“Cruyff is my inspiration. The way he did things was just amazing. I learned so much from him, from his methods and ideas.”
Hagi’s academy aims to promote at least two players to the first team each season. The manager doesn’t care about the age of those he trains.
“I was lucky enough to have good teachers who accelerated my progress. That’s what I want to do myself,” he adds.
“This entire academy is my way of giving something back to football because I always felt indebted.”
The academy lies just outside Constanța, a city of about 300,000 people situated on the Black Sea coast. Before Hagi’s project came to this location it was a field where local farmers used to graze their cows and sheep.
Hagi was promised a new stadium would be built in Constanța, able to hold 20,000 – four times the capacity of the ground the team currently occupy at his academy. The Romanian government will invest almost £100 million into the new project, which should be ready by 2025.
“I returned to Constanța because it’s where I was born,” Hagi says. “This is my place – Farul made me.
“I am working to create champions. I want to create world champions. I believe in this. I believe in the work I’m doing and in the talent of the Romanian players.
“You need to set the biggest goals and believe tirelessly. Otherwise, you aren’t going to do much.”