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Gheorghe Hagi Has Set Out To Single-Handedly Reignite Romanian Football

By Arthur James O'Dea
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Recalling his seven-year stint under Matt Busby in a recent RTÉ documentary, John Giles demonstrated the psychological pull the long-standing Scottish manager held at Manchester United:

Nobody questioned [him], because Matt was God at Old Trafford. If Matt said black was white, then that was it.

From the "Busby Babes" of the 1950s to the European Cup winning side of 1968, a quarter-century of celebrated success is often peppered with recollections of such extensive autonomy on Busby's part. Describing his stint as Busby's initial successor, Frank O'Farrell ultimately found him to be a 'vindictive, punitive and nasty' person.

Yet, whatever the extent of Busby's power, it does not compare with Gheorghe Hagi and his FC Viitorul Constanța. Currently playing in Romania's Liga I, Viitorul were founded only eight years ago - an entrepreneurial 'start-up' bankrolled by the former Real Madrid, Barcelona and Galatasaray playmaker, and the singular legendary figure of Romanian football. Taking over first-team managerial duties in 2014, Hagi simultaneously owns the club based in his home county of Constanța.

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Speaking with Nick Ames of The Guardian, Hagi described his vision for the club as being demonstrative of Johan Cruyff's footballing outlook - one of them, at least - that 'simple is best'. Initially partaking in Romania's Liga III in 2009, Viitorul finished last season as winners of Romania's top-flight. Having contested - figuratively, they lost 0-5 on aggregate to Gent - a Europa League qualifier in 2016, Viitorul will make their first appearance in the Champions League this Wednesday in a third-round qualifier against Apoel Nicosia.

Although success in this competition eluded Hagi as a player, he firmly believes that the relatively quick ascension of Viitorul is no 'accident':

'Winning the league wasn’t our objective; it came as a surprise, because we simply wanted to stay up... We started with nothing and you have to know how to build success. Everything you see here has come as a consequence of things being done the right way through hard, good work.'

The 'right way' Hagi alludes to refers specifically to his playing experience in Spain primarily. Highlighting the Dutch capabilities of producing 'the most players' in spite of their relative size, Hagi seeks to pair this industrious attitude with a playing-style attuned to the Spanish model:

'I want to play like the Spanish. You have to have personality, take control of the ball and try to be the best.'

Yet, it is the actuality of Hagi's plan in action that generates the most intrigue. With an average age of 23 years old, Viitorul were Europe's youngest champions last season. Built upon an academy from which Hagi can apparently name every player from the under-seven level upwards, Hagi's belief in this concept of development appears sincere:


'My idea is that an academy has to produce one first-team player per year, no matter what club we are talking about. Madrid, Barça, Chelsea, any big club you want. In my team, two or three come each year and this time it was seven; that’s at our level but if you’re working with the best academies I think it’s impossible not to produce one player for the first team. It’s a must.'

However, the practical limitations facing Viitorul and the extent to which they can rise determines that Hagi may eventually require a change. Ames suggests that the Romanian's 'coaching ambitions remain grander'. Although he has had a brief spell in charge of the Romanian national team in 2001, his belief that the country is now sitting on a goldmine of talent may eventually inspire a return to this post for the innovative practitioner. 'Without contraries is no progression', and Hagi, who now feels ready to compete once again at 'the highest level', the fascinating rise of Viitorul may offer a blueprint for a fresh period of Romanian football to rival the previous era of Dumitrescu, Răducioiu, Petrescu, and, most memorably, Hagi himself.

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