Football / World Cup USA '94: Hagi's outrageous talent is the stuff of dreams: Battle of the each-way bets: Romania find technique to tame tournament's dark horses as gifted forward produces memorable goal

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The Independent Online
DO YOU honestly think that the great American public can get all steamed up about one of the few Romanian footballers with a pronounceable name?

If not, then think again. So far, the star of the show is Gheorghe Hagi, 29 years old, outrageously gifted, but until now unfulfilled. If there is going to be a better goal in this World Cup than the one Hagi scored in Romania's 3-1 victory against Colombia at the Rose Bowl here, I want to be there when it happens. It was better than great.

When Hagi floated the ball over Colombia's goalkeeper, Oscar Cordoba, from fully 40 yards, it was Pele's career revisited; arousingly deliberate, the stuff glorious World Cup memories are made of.

Something in Hagi's stature and carriage suggests what used to be known as a scheming inside-forward; short, stocky, infinitely resourceful.

According to reliable sources, the trouble is that while Hagi expresses great faith in his intuition, he usually seeks reassurance from others before he acts on it. He does not expect to be contradicted by coaches, but he does gauge the

intensity of their approval.

Then there is Hagi's temperament, which may have something to do with the Romany instinct. 'If Georgi is in the mood,' his team-mates say, 'we are capable of beating anybody.'

Hagi's mood at the Rose Bowl was clearly inspired by indifference to the persistent notion that Colombia are the best each-way bet in the tournament. He did not underestimate their potential but he was not about to flinch from it. 'They (Colombia) had better realise we have some very good players,' he said before the game.

Anyone who saw Romania put paid to Welsh hopes at Cardiff Arms Park towards the end of last year will know that this was not loose thinking on Hagi's part; good players, a sound method and his own capacity for dramatic interventions.

Having engineered the move that enabled Florin Raducioiu to put Romania ahead after 16 minutes - the first of his two goals - Hagi demonstrated this fully with an exquisitely chipped shot that Cordoba only just got to one-handed. When Hagi tried again, this time from wide on the left, Cordoba was helpless.

Hagi made no demands on uninitiated members of the audience. It was not necessary to appreciate his role in the wider scheme of things.

He was as blindingly obvious as the sunshine, an unrivalled man of the match.

He had periods of idleness, conserving energy, but that was to be expected. After all, it was what past sportswriters would have described as a fast and open game with long periods of intense activity.

Nowhere has a design for this World Cup been more faithfully honoured than it was here. Now we will just have to wait and see. Heroics are all very well and good, but it is quality we are looking for.

Individually, the Colombians had it in abundance, but collectively they put furrows on the brow of their phlegmatic coach, Francisco Maturana, who is one of the most impressive figures in the tournament. 'I want to congratulate Romania on a very brave performance,' he said, generously. 'We had a bad day. We've got a good team, but we didn't play up to our potential and there's a lot of work to be done. But one of the good things about a group system is that there are other games. We aren't out of it and I've felt all along that it will be ourselves and Romania who will qualify for the second phase.'

Obsessed with attempting to penetrate the heart of Romania's defence, lacking purpose and variety in their movement off the ball, Colombia still created enough opportunities to have won the game.

In commending Romania's courage, one of the players Maturana had in mind was their goalkeeper, Bogdan Stelea, who performed small miracles of agility and judgement when Colombia launched impressive and exciting sorties in the first half. One save from Fredy Rincon was little short of phenomenal.

This new knowledge offers a happy alternative to the 1990 World Cup, one miserably short of quality, individual and collective.

It is still to know whether the trend will continue. 'We have come to the World Cup to enjoy ourselves,' Maturana added. 'If we win that will be a bonus. I would rather we play well and make a good impression than succeed playing boringly.'

The spectacle of Colombia going at Romania adventurously and being punished for extravagance made for an exciting enounter.

Today's crop of players, coaches, spectators and even some writers, seem to get much more hotly excited about strategy and tactics than their elders did.

Maybe this is the erroneous memory of a veteran, but it is the impression here that Colombia versus Romania was an echo from the past. Then it was not a tacit rule that teams took no risks.

Expounding on what he believed Romania's tactics to be, Maturana said, 'They let us have the ball.' If so, it proved to be a risk worth taking. Hagi saw to that.

COLOMBIA: Cordoba (America Cali); Escobar, Herrera (both Nacional Medellin), Perez (America Cali), Perea, Valderrama (both Junior Barranquilla), Alvarez (America Cali), Gomez (Nacional Medellin), Rincon (Palmeiras), Valencia (Bayern Munich), Asprilla (Parma).

ROMANIA: Stelea (Rapid Bucharest); Petrescu (Genoa), Prodan (Steaua Bucharest), Belodedici (Valencia), Popescu (PSV Eindhoven), Mihali (Dinamo Bucharest), Lupescu (Bayer Leverkusen), Munteanu (Cercle Bruges), Hagi (Brescia), Dumitrescu (Steaua Bucharest), Raducioiu (Milan). Substitutes: Selymes (Club Bruges) for Dumitrescu, 65), Papura (Universitatea Craiova) for Raducioiu, 89.

Referee: J Al-Sharif (Syria).

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