Football / World Cup USA '94: Hagi's gifts given perfect platform: Romania's diminutive playmaker is making a big impression. Ken Jones reports

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THE detail of Gheorghe Hagi's appearance that makes his success in the World Cup intriguing is his waistline.

Probably the players of Notts County have given this some thought because when Hagi scored against them at Wembley a few months ago to win the Anglo-Italian Cup for Brescia, he seemed to be carrying more than a little surplus. If Hagi was not a fat man he gave the impression that he was getting there.

You would not describe Hagi as svelte but the shape of him now compared with shape of him then, could be important. It has been suggested that the improvement is as much as two notches on Hagi's belt. If so, is it down to drinking water instead of wine? Just a banana for breakfast?

When confronted with this line of questioning Hagi reacted warily. It was there in his eyes, the sudden departure of a smile. Perhaps that had something to with the oppressive system under which Hagi was raised, but in any case, weight was not something he wished to speak about.

For Romania's accomplished captain this has become a World Cup of glorious opportunity. At 29 he is reborn, so far the star of the tournament. Only Romario of Brazil and Jurgen Klinsmann of Germany have got near him. 'Hagi is for us what Maradona was for Argentina, what Cruyff was for the Netherlands,' said Romania's astute coach, Anghel Iodanescu, 'but at the same time I don't wish to compare him with them. For me personally he is unique.' Nor did Iodanescu feel the need to be specific.

Early in the tournament it came to mind that Hagi is very much from the mould of what used to be a typical inside forward. Shortish, well balanced, canny passer. A schemer. Anyone who saw John Giles play for Leeds and the Republic of Ireland may find the resemblance uncanny. Apart from one or two other minor considerations there is one significant difference. For such a small man, Hagi generates quite astonishing power. He clubs the ball.

The first of his goals here, against Colombia, flew in from 35 yards, a masterpiece of judgement and timing. When Hagi was put through by Ilie Dumitrescu against Argentina, the resultant shot was best described as unstoppable. Hagi's passing, short and long, is admirable. He can look after himself too.

However, looking closely, there are one or two things that make me question the wisdom of Tottenham Hotspur's interest in the Romanian. I am not alone with this perception. Shortly after Brazil defeated the United States in San Francisco, I fell into conversation with Kevin Keegan who is over here working for television. The Newcastle manager agreed that Hagi has stood out in an exciting World Cup but because of factors peculiar to English football he does not covet him.

There is no doubt that Hagi would provide artistic satisfaction but it would be necessary to accommodate his physical limitations. The challenge might appeal to him but eccentrics get short shrift in the Premiership. Hagi can tackle but he is not always capable of getting to where he can make one. Sometimes, when taking rests, he lets opponents run past him.

When Romania were defeated 4-1 by Switzerland in the opening round, Iodanescu was not pleased with his captain. 'Afterwards we had a long conversation', he said this week at a hotel near Los Angeles. 'There were things I wanted to discuss with him because I wasn't happy about the way he played in the second half.'

Conceivably this had a critical effect on Romania's performance against Argentina, the victory Iodanescu described as the greatest in his country's football history. While his legs lasted Hagi performed thrillingly, sharing with Dumitrescu the responsibility for launching Romania's counter-attacks.

Explaining his decision to substitute them with 10 minutes still left on the clock, Iodanescu admitted that it had been a great risk. 'But if Argentina had equalised to take us into extra time, Hagi and Dumitrescu would have been useless to us. They had nothing left.'

Strange lot the Romanians. Friendly enough but never opening up as though not yet able to enjoy their freedom fully. Iodanescu's responses are lengthy but often obscure. Asked if he was satisfied with the overall fitness of his players which could be crucial in a quarter-final against Sweden, he rambled on about the difficulties experienced in preparation. 'Because some of our players have contracts abroad it was difficult to bring them all together,' he said.

They are also sensitive to criticism, resenting some of the reports fed back about them, especially a reference to gypsies.

As a team Romania appear time-warped, technically proficient but studied rather than athletic. Dumitrescu is deceptively quick but there is no real sprinter among them. If they held a race you could safely bet that Hagi would not finish in the frame. He claims to be suprised by the fuss. 'I've been in the national team for many years, people know about me, so why are they excited about a couple of games?'

The answer is quite simple. It is because Hagi is playing the best football of his career. Because he has stood out above all the others, orchestrating play, scoring spectacular goals. That is what the World Cup can do for a footballer with Hagi's gifts. But Tottenham should think about the bleak evenings of winter. Then it might be a different story.

(Photograph omitted)