Gheorghe Hagi has been talking for almost an hour when, not for the first time, he shoots a glance at the adjacent training pitch. Viitorul Constanta’s Under-17 and Under-19 squads are going through their paces under the late-afternoon sun and on several occasions there has been the sense that Hagi, watching from the corner of his eye, is having to restrain himself from darting across to correct certain imperfections. “Look at this,” he says, waving an arm out into the heat. “This is not about money; that’s the last thing for me. This is about work – work and dedication.”
Nobody leaves this smart facility, five kilometres from the beaches of Mamaia and their swarms of Black Sea holidaymakers, without that outlook being seared upon them but the fruits of Hagi’s work are about to go on show to the wider world. Viitorul’s senior team will play their first Champions League fixture on Wednesday when the Cypriot side Apoel visit for a third qualifying round first leg; they earned that right through winning Romania’s Liga I last season despite having one of its smallest budgets, a remarkable feat that outstripped every projection Hagi had made for his club when he founded it in 2009. At that point the professional squad was intended merely as a finishing school for the academy before it. The aim was to give something back to the sport that made him; to help young Romanian players become great, just as he had been. If their path has been accelerated beyond all imagining it is the result of a constant, clear vision that has left Viitorul’s more storied rivals trailing.
“We didn’t plan what happened but we made it and it’s fantastic,” says Hagi, whose team had finished fifth the previous season, losing 5-0 to Gent in last year’s Europa League qualifiers. “Winning the league wasn’t our objective; it came as a surprise, because we simply wanted to stay up. But we aren’t an accident. 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.”
Hagi’s way is a deliberate fusion of the influences that, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, helped harness one of the most exhilarating creative talents in the world. In his two years apiece at Real Madrid and Barcelona he was closer to cult figure than consistent success but what he learned under Johan Cruyff at the latter – “Simple is best, that’s what Cruyff always said” – stuck for good. By the time he was ready to start Viitorul, which translates as “Future”, Hagi had a blueprint for player production written down on paper and the finishing touches came from a visit to five leading Dutch academies.
“I had to see how their system worked,” he says. “They are a small country but they produce the most players, so they are the example. I took the organisation of the Dutch, and I want to play like the Spanish. You have to have personality, take control of the ball and try to be the best.”
That had been Hagi’s frustration for so many years: the fact that Romania were no longer among the best. It had been bubbling away since well before his playing career ended; in fact, it had come to the surface back in 1998, four years after a mesmerising national team had reached the World Cup quarter-finals, when he warned a decadent and reckless football federation that “Romanian football will be dead in 10 years’ time”. By the time he started Viitorul, few could argue with that prediction. The domestic game was bereft, corrupt and helpless in the hands of incompetents and opportunists; institutions such as Steaua Bucharest were giants in name only while Hagi himself had struggled in a succession of short-lived managerial roles with the national side, Steaua, Politehnica Timisoara, Bursaspor and another of his old clubs, Galatasaray. It hurt. With €10m of his own money, Hagi decided to take it all on himself.
“I took a lot of risks but I did it because of the immense passion I have for football,” Hagi says. “If my academy has become an example for others then that’s a very good thing. I had a great career as a player and I’m very happy with what I achieved but this is the second part. My mission now is to help others achieve their dreams, in football and in life.”
It would have been easier to sit on his wealth into old age but Hagi is, at 52, a remarkable vision: a force of nature; a workaholic who can name every player at Viitorul from under-seven level upwards. He owns the club, oversees the “technical concept” that is preached at all levels and has managed the senior team since 2014. He is ubiquitous; you have the impression that this, even more than any of the left-foot flourishes for which he is best known, could be his life’s defining work.
“Romania must invest in youth,” he says. “It’s the only way we can create a new generation of players, like the one I was part of, that can challenge everybody. Maybe we can nurture an even better one. That’s the goal I have.” Hagi talks extensively about his frustration at the lack of state backing for sport in Romania, and a walk around the crumbling, weed-strewn stands of Constanta’s Farul Stadium – home of Farul Constanta, historically the city’s biggest club, where Hagi first made his name – speaks equally well of how far the country’s football has been allowed to fall. Uefa has been complicit too, he believes, with the Champions League’s current format doing eastern Europe’s traditional powers a disservice.
“The champions of important countries like Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Poland should go straight to the group stage,” he says. “If I had the power to change it, I’d do it immediately. Not going directly to the group stage separated us from the west; in order to invest internally you have to see a certain perspective outside, and that perspective is the Champions League. It doesn’t make sense for a country that has won the competition, like Romania [through Steaua in 1986], not to have a team there every year.”
Hagi will try to do it the hard way with the bulk of a side that, at an average age of 23.7, were the continent’s youngest champions last season. He has promoted seven academy players this summer and added some experienced heads for Europe; there will always be flux and sales are necessary both to improve his players’ prospects and keep Viitorul running, with the winger Florinel Coman and defender Romario Benzar, courted by Benfica and Lazio respectively, tipped to move on after the Apoel qualifier.
“My idea is that an academy has to produce one first-team player per year, no matter what club we are talking about,” he says. “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.”
It could be read as a shot at certain Premier League clubs but Hagi does not intend it that way. He visited one organisation with an uncertain pathway to senior football, Manchester City, last year on the invitation of his friend Pep Guardiola, and found their academy “incredible, very beautiful, with fantastic infrastructure”. Hagi is only half-joking when he says: “I hope to challenge Pep one day”; he does not say where but he is a confirmed anglophile and believes England are a few tweaks away from a new era of success.
“You have the youngest, most beautiful national team,” he says. “That’s my opinion. You won so many games at every level this summer, and if the senior team works on two or three details you can compete for winning a World Cup or European Championship again.
“I think you play too much. The players are exhausted when they reach final tournaments. The level of the league is very high and they play a lot, so they aren’t fresh enough. England starts well, then falls. You have very high quality but the players aren’t fresh enough mentally and then physically.”
Hagi twice came close to playing in the Premier League and the identities of his suitors – Ossie Ardiles’s Tottenham in 1994 and the Kevin Keegan-led Newcastle of two years later – are little surprise. In the end he chose Cruyff instead of Ardiles, and Galatasaray were able to beat Keegan to a deal with Barcelona. “I wanted very much to play in England,” he says. “I know people like and appreciate me there; it would have been extraordinary for me, a great pleasure. I’ll just let my son do it. Where I haven’t been to play, I’ll let him go.”
The son in question is Ianis Hagi, an 18-year-old playmaker who joined Fiorentina from Viitorul last year and has played twice in Serie A. Hagi is reluctant to call his boy a chip off the old block – “He has two feet and I have only one but I’m sure he’s mine” – but the signs are good and others who have worked with Ianis describe a serious, dedicated young man for whom the name has never seemed an encumbrance. “He is very talented, an amazing kid,” Hagi says. “He has amazing quality and personality; now it’s a question of ambition. He was captain of my first team when he was just 16 and a half, so he is a leader and he can be a very important player for Romania’s future.”
Central to Hagi’s entire project is the unswerving belief that Romania is sitting on a goldmine. He is not alone in that; Arsène Wenger is among those who, in recent years, has expressed the view that its football potential is ranked in Europe’s top two or three. “Why would he say that?” asks Hagi rhetorically. “Because Romania won the European Cup. We are Latins, we are creative and we need more organisation – but in terms of talent we are first, that’s what I think. It’s not a surprise that people would say this, because Cruyff thought it too. We miss a few things but the talent is there.”
Hagi would like to see those who took Romania to such heights two decades ago given the space to mould the national set-up in their own image and it would certainly be interesting to see what happened if one of his vintage ran against Razvan Burleanu, the football federation president, at its elections in March. He says it would be a “long, hard road ... but maybe someone can walk it” and does not hide the fact that he has unfinished business in international football himself. “I feel complete; I’m ready for the highest level,” he says. The impression is that, while Viitorul’s academy remains a lifelong commitment, his coaching ambitions remain grander.
Success against Apoel would push his case harder. There are always bumps in the road in Romania and one was negotiated the day before this interview, when the court of arbitration for sport rejected a claim from the Steaua owner, Gigi Becali, to whose daughters Hagi is godfather, that the league title’s resolution through head-to-head records during its play-off stage had been illegitimate. Hagi will not comment on Becali, who had merely wasted everyone’s time, but there had been some tension when the decision was announced as Viitorul flew back from a friendly with Marseille and only when one of the squad, 35,000 feet in the air, found a pocket of phone signal midway through the journey were nerves settled.
“From what I’ve seen in our preparations, I think we are ready to fight for qualification to the next round,” Hagi says. The energy and confidence are unremitting and it is difficult, when you see what he has created amid swathes of featureless agricultural land, not to be swept along. Within seconds of the conversation finishing, he can contain himself no more and has bounded over to the under-17s’ half of the pitch to address a flaw in shooting technique. “We have to be there for them when they need us,” he had said of Viitorul’s youth earlier; Hagi has never shied from showing others the path to follow and next week will be back at the level that feels naturally his.
The Guardian Sport