Football is full of brilliant playmakers and cult heroes but few encapsulate both categories quite like Gheorghe Hagi.
Amog the breakout stars of the 1994 World Cup, with England noticeable absentees, fans found themselves drawn to underdogs like Romania and the talents of players like the mercurial attacking midfielder.
Hagi first made headlines with his spectacular strike against Colombia in the group stage of that competition but, in truth, the small-but-stocky playmaker’s legend preceded that tournament and would go far beyond it.
Part of the talented Steaua Bucharest team that reached the European Cup final in 1989, Hagi would go on to enjoy a successful spell with Real Madrid in the early 90s before earning God-like status in Serie A with lowly Brescia.
His two seasons in Italy were unique to say the least.
Part of an underperforming Brescia team that was relegated from Serie A in the 1992/93 campaign, Hagi remained at the club, helping them gain promotion back to the Italian top-flight and playing an integral role in the Rondinelle’s success in that season’s Anglo-Italian Cup, playing in their 1-0 victory over Notts County in the final.
A few short months later he was crossing the Atlantic with Romania, where he would cement his name in football folklore as the “Maradona of the Carpathians” at that summer’s the World Cup.
It had started with a series of star turns at the 1990 World Cup, where Hagi helped Romania reach the knockout phase of the competition for the first time in their history – but the best would come four years later.
Hagi scored three times at USA ’94 as Romania defied the odds even further to reach the quarter-finals – their best ever performance.
It was a tournament that saw Hagi forge a reputation for sublime goals, starting with that strike against Colombia and continuing with an equally inspired effort in a thrilling 3-2 win over Argentina in the Second Round.
His goal against Argentina, meanwhile, came at the culmination of a superb breakaway move, orchestrated by teammate Ilie Dumitrescu and finished off with pace and precision by Hagi.
Those two goals – a sublimely accurate long-range strike, an a powerful, precise and cooly-taken finish – perfectly encapsulated the two sides of the midfielder.
On first viewing, his long-range strike against Colombia appeared a fluke – a cross that somehow found its way into the goal. But such suggestion belies the true magic of Hagi. Dashing forward from the left hand side of the pitch, the Romanian clearly spots Los Cafeteros’ goalkeeper Oscar Cardoba out of position and duly takes aim.
But his other goal – a consolation in a 4-1 group stage loss to Switzerland that was part and parcel of the Romanian team’s erratic magic – is worthy of mention. A low, precise, long-range strike coming at pace and under intense pressure.
As Romania’s captain and playmaker, Hagi would go on to earn a reputation as a constant thorn in the side of England, masterminding wins over the Three Lions at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
At 5ft 8in, Hagi was smaller-than the average footballer, but a heady mix of strength and sublime skill ensured the Romanian was more than your average footballer.
One of the best dribblers on the planet, Hagi’s close control was only matched by his technique and eye for a pass, with the Romanian equally adept at tiki-taka-style passing as he was a raking cross-field ball.
He also had a keen eye for goal too, able to apply the necessary power, accuracy or finesse to almost any goalscoring opportunity. That was as much down to his footballing intelligence as it was his pure ability.
Despite being one of only a handful of players to turn out for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, Hagi’s biggest club success came in Turkey with Galatasaray.
Deployed on the left-hand side of the midfield, in five years with the Istanbul giants, Hagi weaved his magic, guiding Gala to four consecutive league titles and an unprecedented UEFA Cup.
That UEFA Cup victory, sealed with a win over Arsenal on penalties in 2000, capped off a remarkable treble for Galatasaray that included the Turkish Cup and saw the club become the first Turkish team to win a major European title – and yet Hagi came closer than anyone to undoing that.
A fiery character on and off the pitch, Hagi helped Gala get to the final but one rash moment nearly cost the Turkish team everything after the Romanian sent-off in extra time after punching Arsenal captain Tony Adams.
It proved to be the making of the team though. Without Hagi, Gala turned ultra-defensive, holding out for a penalty shootout where, with the psychological edge on their side, they duly triumphed.
These days Hagi can be found managing Viitorul Constanța, a club he founded back in 2009, and overseeing operations at the famed Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy back in his homeland.
Beloved of fans in Romania, Turkey and the world over, Hagi’s legend lives on via YouTube and the glut of highlights reels and goals that have been captured and posted on their for posterity.
Rightly regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all-time, it was ex-France international Luis Fernandez who put it best when he once declared: “Hagi is like wine, the older it gets, the better he is.”
Watch the videos above and drink it in.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.