At the Feet of the Master
Gheorghe Hagi has established an academy to try to develop a new generation of Romanian talent
On 23 May 2015, Gheorghe Hagi patrolled the edge of his technical area with studied rage, shouting words of heated encouragement and advice at his young players, led by their 21-year-old captain Bogdan Țîru. Viitorul Constanța, of which Hagi is both coach and owner, were 1-0 down against Braşov in their final home game of the Romanian Liga I season and needed a win to have any chance of qualifying for the following season’s Europa League. The sun beat down as the clock ticked on.
The Viitorul players on the pitch were a youthful bunch. The average age of the squad was under 22 and most of the players had come through a football academy that Hagi, now 50, had set up in his hometown of Constanța in 2009, the same year the professional team he founded began its journey in Romania’s third division.
Since then, the team has been promoted twice, so they play every week against the likes of Steaua and Dinamo, Bucharest clubs with proud traditions in global football. Meanwhile, the academy has grown to 300 players.
Among the players on the pitch against Braşov was Hagi’s 16-year-old son Ianis, a diminutive but highly skilled No.10 who moved up from the academy late in the season. Some believe Hagi junior could eventually surpass his father as a footballer – no mean feat considering Hagi senior is the most famous player Romania has ever produced, a legend who wowed the world during the 1994 World Cup and who is one of the few players of any nationality to have turned out for both Barcelona and Real Madrid. By the time he retired at 36, Hagi had won domestic titles in Romania and Turkey, been named Romanian Footballer of the Year seven times and represented his country in three World Cups (1990, 1994 and 1998).
Like many of the Viitorul squad, Ianis wasn’t alive to see his father’s exploits during the 1994 World Cup and nor was he yet born when Hagi helped beat England 2-1 in the 1998 World Cup.
Hagi senior’s reputation remains uncontested in his home country, and for more than six years he’s been on a new mission: to revitalise Romanian football, putting his reputation, money and energy where his mouth is with his own football academy and professional team. Viitorul means ‘future’ in Romanian, while the academy is named after himself: the Gheorghe Hagi Academy.
Hagi’s stated aim for both the academy and his professional team is simple: to help develop new generations of gifted and tactically astute players who will not only dominate domestically but can return Romania to the highest international stage. “We have the talent, kids play football everywhere, every day, but we need to build a good environment to deliver for them,” Hagi told me over coffee a few weeks before the game against Braşov. “Before I finished my playing career I had this idea to help young players fulfil their dreams, and I wanted to do this in the city where I was born.”
In November 2013, when the Romanian national team crashed at the last hurdle, losing a play-off against Greece to fail to qualify for a World Cup for the fourth time in a row, no one in the crowded National Arena in Bucharest seemed surprised. “Romanian footballers suck,” said a resigned fan standing next to me as the final whistle sounded, with a sad shake of his head. The stadium quickly emptied.
This was just the latest in a long string of disappointments for Romanian football fans and it wouldn’t stop there.
In March 2014, the national hero and former Barcelona captain Gheorghe Popescu was sentenced to three years in prison for money laundering and tax evasion. His conviction kept him from being elected president of the Romanian Football Federation, a position he had been expected to take up. As part of the same case, seven other football executives and agents were also given jail terms.
Shortly after that, Dinamo Bucharest, one of Romania’s leading teams, joined a long list of domestic teams that have filed for insolvency in recent years.
Steaua Bucharest had their own dramas: in December 2014 they had to play without their name or badge for several games – the scoreboard simply called them Home Team or Away Team – while they tried to negotiate an agreement with the Romanian army, which owns the Steaua name and badge and alleged that the team had been illegally using the brand since 2004. Holding up the negotiations may have been the fact that Gigi Becali, the larger-than-life owner of Steaua, had been sentenced to three years in prison in May 2013 for his role in illegal land transactions. He was released early in March 2015. Steaua now have a new badge but reached an accord with the Ministry of Defence to continue to use the Steaua name.
In among all of this, Hagi seemed to be one of the few untainted and bona-fide football heroes Romania had left. “Why did I choose to join the academy and play for Viitorul? Simple: Hagi,” Țîru told me the day before their final home game of the season.
Outside the small city of Ovidiu, on the Romanian coast just north of the port city of Constanța, the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy stands among a series of sloping fields. A gravel driveway leads up to the complex and the small stadium that Viitorul Constanța will occupy from next season. (The first team currently play their home games in an old stadium on the outskirts of Bucharest, since their own stadium, with 4,500 seats, wasn’t ready for top-division football.)
Despite it being almost summer a cold wind whips up from the Black Sea, visible a few kilometres away. Behind the main stadium, academy players from the Under-13, Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 teams run through practice drills on two of the four standard-sized pitches, watched over by coaches who are using the same sets of drills and tactics for each age group, following the example of clubs such as Ajax. The older age groups have heart monitors recording their exertions during training, so that coaches know who is not working hard enough or if the drills are not having the desired effect.
Further back is the skeleton of a large building which when finished will house staff offices and accommodation for the older academy players, 60 of whom are currently living in a hotel the academy has rented 20 minutes drive from the complex. From the unfinished building’s fourth floor you can look down on the entire facility, seen by many as among the best in the country. By some estimations, Hagi and his backers have spent €10million on the infrastructure.
Workmen are still busy on the complex’s main stadium, trying to get it ready in time for the 2015-16 season, so that the first team can finally return to their home and start developing proper links to the city and their potential fan base – at the “home” game against FC Braşov barely 500 people had shown up, highlighting both the newness of the team and also the general mood surrounding Romanian football at the moment. Turnstiles were added at the entrance to the stadium just a few days before my visit, but the fence is yet to go up so you can just walk around them. (In one of those only-in-Romania situations, Steaua boss Gigi Becali was granted day release from prison in April 2014 to perform unskilled labour at the academy, although the likelihood that he actually mowed any grass or painted any fences is minimal.)
After a string of short managerial stints in Turkey and Romania in the early 2000s, Hagi returned to Constanța and, at a time when there were few grassroots organisations operating in the country, set up the academy, which is now one of the main suppliers of players to the national youth teams. The national U17 team recently had nine players from the academy in its squad, while the U15 and U19 regularly have five or six academy players.
In May 2014, Viitorul player Cristian Manea became at 16 the youngest Romanian to play for the national team and in the same game the club’s 19-year-old midfielder Florin Tănase also made his international debut. Romania beat Albania 1-0. “We invest in the young, promote the young, we put 17 year olds, 19 year olds in the first team, we give them a chance,” said Hagi, adding that by 2020 he hopes “we can have 11 [academy] players in the [senior] national team.”
The Hagi Academy has attempted to offer something that has been lacking elsewhere in Romanian football for some time: a holistic approach. “You have to look to youth, but you can’t just take the youth and put them on a field with a ball. This is not football, it’s a kickabout,” said Lucian Burchel, the academy’s technical director, who first played with Hagi when they were 13 year olds and later spent five years working for the Romanian Football Federation before joining Hagi’s project in its infancy.
The great Romania national teams from the 1980s and 90s were raised in this holistic way because of the communist system in place before 1990. Youth players were housed together and spent most of their waking lives together, which helped create bonds and understanding between players. “They took care of everything, we came to Bucharest, lived together for three or four years. From that came the team of the 1990s,” said Hagi.
The Gheorghe Hagi Academy now has more than 300 players from across Romania and many of the older kids live away from home, under the care of the academy. “We have to be very responsible for the players, taking them from their families,” said Burchel. However, he believes the holistic approach, which is prevalent in countries such as Spain and Germany, is beneficial. “If you have the routine of going to school together, resting together, playing together, it helps. In the hotel each group has a program – school program, training program, rest program.”
The players even have Spanish language classes, and, from next season, English, to increase their chances of and comfort in playing abroad at a later point in their careers. “In Romania, until Hagi came here with the academy, Romania didn’t invest much in young players,” Nicolae Roşca, the U17 coach told me, sitting in a hotel’s noisy canteen surrounded by players grabbing their lunch before a relaxation period and then afternoon training.
Roşca, a central defender who retired a decade ago, has been working at the academy since 2009, moving from coaching roles with the U10 and U19 teams to his present position. “It’s all about the money,” he said. “It’s hard to invest in young players because you don’t know if you are going to get anything back.”
The U17 team had just returned from Italy, where they played (and won) two friendlies against AC Roma’s U17 team. “Italy was tough, we had to play very well,” said Mihai Ene, a 16 year old who plays in midfield for the academy’s U17 team. Dressed in flowery shorts and a bright yellow T-shirt, his hair in a quiff, Ene understands English but feels more confident replying to my questions in Romanian. He’s been at the academy for three years, but originally comes from the industrial city of Ploieşti. “Here we are trained tactically, technically and mentally. Where I came from before it was just fun really,” he said. “At the beginning it was very hard to leave my family, but they come here often and I go home regularly.”
Photos from academy games decorate the lobby walls around us, while a handful of players visit the small clinic on the ground floor. Timetables pinned to the wall list study and training plans, while another shows the television schedule for the Champions League final and upcoming Viitorul games. The place needs a lick of paint, as would anywhere that has 60-plus teenage boys living in it.
Over the last few years the academy’s youth teams have dominated domestically. The U13, U15, U17 and U19 squads won six of a possible twelve national championships between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, and made a clean sweep of it in the 2014-15 season (with the U19 top by 19 points and the U13 team scoring almost twice as many goals as all but the runners up – and that was the Academy’s U13 B team). In November 2014, its U12 team represented Romania at the Danone Nations Cup in Brazil, finishing sixth and beating the representative teams from Germany, Algeria and Italy.
All of this has required significant investment and Burchel says that the reason other teams in Romania aren’t doing this is that they are too focused on short-term needs and aren’t willing to invest in developing players. “Steaua doesn’t have an academy. Why? Because after four or five years the owner asks: ‘Where is the player from my academy in the first team? Show me.’ And the manager says we don’t have one. ‘Where is the player from the academy we sold for money?’ ‘We don’t have one’,” he says, with a shrug of his shoulders.”
However, there are concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of Hagi’s project as well as the ability of such a youthful first team squad to compete at the very top. The hope is that the academy will become self-sufficient in five or six years, selling players to other teams in Romania and abroad and using the money to fund the academy’s operations. So far, however, the money has mostly come from Hagi and his business partners.
And, after only just surviving relegation in the 2013-14 season, Hagi brought in several veterans to the first team to help guide the younger players. “The young players in our first team don’t have everything yet,” admits Burchel. “Bringing in players like Bănel Nicoliță [who played for Steaua between 2005-11 and then in France for Saint-Étienne and Nantes] helps. He is someone who can take our players and push them, help them develop by example. Nicoliță took our captain after training and helped him develop.”
The 21-year-old Țîru agrees. “I became captain this year,” he told me. “The first games were a bit hard but now it’s okay. I know what being a captain means.”
Before the Braşov game, Viitorul Constanța were in ninth place in the table, but with some of the teams above them in insolvency they had a chance of qualifying for the Europa League if they won both remaining games and other results went in their favour. “Playing in Europe would be big step,” said Țîru, sitting in the team’s hotel on the outskirts of Bucharest. “It would be a reward for the job we’ve been doing the last few years. Two games, six points. We will see.”
The larger challenge remaining, however, is finding room for all of the academy players maturing from the youth set up. Viitorul currently have a B team that will play in the Romanian third division in 2015-16, but there are obviously only a limited number of positions available in either squad: many players will not make it and will struggle to find another team.
Hagi is hopeful that as the academy’s reputation grows further, more of the young players will find a future at other clubs throughout the leagues. He is also optimistic that their best players will eventually end up plying their trade across the world. “We are open to selling players,” he said. “Our target is to build a competitive player and then, our level is our level, so if they can be more than us they can move on.”
In June it was reported that Chelsea have agreed a deal to sign Cristian Manea from Viitorul for £2.3million, with the right-back likely to spend a season at Chelsea’s associate club, Vitesse Arnhem. In December 2012 the club sold the striker Gabriel Iancu to Steaua for an undisclosed fee. Steaua subsequently put a €25 million buyout clause in his contract.
“We are not England, Germany, Spain,” said Hagi. ‘We don’t have money to buy the best players so we have to build them. Then we can one day compete with the others who have money, full stadiums every week. One day we beat them, that is my target. That level of respect.”
As the final minutes tick down against Braşov, Viitorul Constanța have much of the possession, but it is clear that they will be unable to pull back a two-goal deficit. “Maybe they are tired or maybe it is because they are young,” one employee tells me after the game ends 2-0. “They don’t have the experience yet of dealing with the end of the season.”
Despite this, many in Romania hope Hagi and his young players are ones to watch in the years to come. Indeed, a few weeks after finishing eleventh, it was announced that Ianis Hagi was joining Serie A side Fiorentina, for a fee of around €1 million.
The Hagi legacy continues.