Football / World Cup USA '94: The quiet revolutionary: Romania's challenge centres on the midfielder poised to be the star of the tournament: Richard Williams meets Gheorghe Hagi, who can today further his claim on greatness

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SO TELL us, Gheorghe, how much weight did you have to lose before these World Cup finals?

'Weight? Who says I lose weight? Where did you read this? Where?'

OK, Gheorghe, do you feel that, through your performances in the recent games, you've finally justified a reputation that has sometimes been questioned?

'Who has questioned it? Who wrote that? Where did you read it? Where?'

Listening to a group of journalists trying to ask Gheorghe Hagi a few relatively harmless questions last week, you could be forgiven for thinking Romania was still in the grip of the Ceausescus and their secret police. Maybe old habits die hard. All the Romanians' training sessions in the past four weeks, after all, have been held behind closed doors. More seriously, the years since the people's revolt of 1989 have not been easy, even for Gheorghe Hagi, a pampered star of the Spanish and Italian leagues since his displays in the 1990 World Cup finals earned him a well-paid passage out of his homeland.

Hagi, the 29-year-old working-class boy from the Black Sea port of Constanta, was the first player to make his mark on this year's finals. On the second day of the tournament, he orchestrated the Romanians' astonishing rout of the highly fancied Colombians, making lethal opportunities for Florin Raducioiu, the chief striker, and scoring himself with an audacious long-range chip over the left shoulder of the horrified Colombian goalkeeper, Oscar Cordoba.

Four days later, though, there was a serious setback, when Romania crashed 4-1 to penny-plain Switzerland and Hagi, despite scoring a first-half goal to bring his team level, drifted on to the periphery as the Swiss took control. Now, we thought, we were seeing the more familiar Hagi, the unreliable character whose tiresome sobriquet, 'the Maradona of the Carpathians', was justified by the ups and downs of his temperament.

In the final group match, against the United States, he was back to some sort of form, reminding us that here was a left foot we once compared to those of Gerson, John Giles and Wim van Hanegem. Two genius-level passes inside the US full-backs in the first 90 seconds of the game, one to Dorinel Munteanu on the left and the other to Tibor Selymes on the right, established the plot-line, significantly disturbing the composure of a US side which had come into the match high on its own triumphant defeat of Colombia.

Hagi didn't have an explicit involvement in Dan Petrescu's winning goal, but by his presence was the most striking figure on the field, as he calmed and directed his colleagues with an ominous lack of fuss.

And then, last Sunday, came sudden death for Argentina in the best match of the tournament's first two rounds, Romania's devastating counter-attacks proving more than enough to defeat the South Americans. In the absence of the suspended Raducioiu, and with the score at 1-1, Hagi went down the right wing in the 18th minute and created a pass to his new striker, Ilie Dumitrescu, of such brilliant weight and direction that the response was guaranteed. And on the hour Dumitrescu repaid the compliment, making ground up the middle and delaying his final pass until Hagi was in a position to meet it with a smashing right-foot shot so conclusive that the image of Pele serving Carlos Alberto for Brazil's fourth goal against Italy in the 1970 final came up straight away on the mind's replay machine.

This was the Hagi we remembered from Italia '90, a midfield player of such craft and cunning that his eminence in the world game seemed assured. Real Madrid promptly bought him from Steaua Bucharest, a transaction enabled by the then-recent fall of the Romanian dictatorship, which had previously prohibited its players from seeking their fortunes abroad. In Madrid, however, in the context of a troubled and divided club, he was unable to impose himself, and after two lacklustre seasons he moved from Spain to Italy. Not to a Juventus or a Milan, however, but to humble Brescia, a town previously known only as the start-and-finish point of the long-defunct Mille Miglia motor race.

In Brescia he joined a Romanian coach, Mircea Lucescu, and another Romanian player, Florin Raducioiu, who had moved there after spells with Bari and Verona. Yet success remained elusive. At the end of the season Brescia had to play Udinese in a relegation play-off, and lost 3-1. Raducioiu headed off to a place on Milan's subs' bench, very much the sixth of the club's six foreign players. Hagi stayed put, facing a season in Serie B and the Anglo-Italian Cup, in which, unshaven and carrying a bit too much weight, he faced the likes of Notts County. As far as the elite was concerned, he had been more or less written off, his name forgotten except for occasions on which, as against Northern Ireland not long ago, he did something like getting sent off for spitting at an opponent.

Forgotten, that is, until he arrived in America. Sunday's match consecrated Hagi's standing as one of the central figures of the 1994 finals, a tournament in which the excellence of the collective play has often overshadowed the brilliance of the individual stars. The marketing men, of course, need stars. With Maradona in disgrace, Rai and Valderrama in decline, and the revival of Baggio still an open question, Hagi has been rivalling Romario for the spotlight. Consequently he has spent the past week muttering evasive platitudes into journalists' tape recorders, as have his coach and his team-mates, to whom the second or third question is invariably something like, 'Are you surprised that Hagi is playing so well?'

No, says Raducioiu or Dumitrescu or Munteanu or whoever, we always knew he was this good. Sometimes, however, if you're lucky, one of them goes a bit further. 'Hagi's just about half our team,' said the goalkeeper, Florin Prunea, on Thursday, after the Romanians had finished training at their new base, the playing fields of Santa Clara University, a few miles south of Palo Alto, where they meet Sweden in today's quarter-final. 'When he doesn't play, the team's in trouble.'

'I've known him for a long time,' said the quiet, intelligent Dumitrescu, who played with Hagi at Steaua, 'and I believe he's the best player in the tournament.'

Earlier in the week, before they left Arcadia, the team's coach, Anghel Iordanescu, had paid a similarly fulsome tribute. 'He's a great player,' he said, 'with a great value. To us, Hagi means something like Maradona meant to the Argentinian team, or Cruyff meant to the Dutch. But at the same time I don't want you to think that I'm comparing him to them. For me, he's unique.'

Sitting along the table from Iordansecu, head down and doodling intently on a hotel notepad, Hagi was invited to give his reaction to such a compliment, and to say whether he felt that he had at last conquered his inconsistency and was now fulfilling his promise.

'I'm proud that people think I can be compared with these players,' he said. 'They made history. And I'm hoping that maybe I can be in history, too. As for the second comment, in life you have your ups and downs and every time you wake up it's a different morning. Everybody knows I've been playing well since I was 18. Some people wrote nice things about me, some didn't. What's more important is that now, at the age I am, I have the chance to be part of a team with this generation of Romanian players. Of course I'm very pleased when people talk about me being the best in the world. That's why we play the game. To do our best, and to have people talk about you. That's the personal satisfaction. And up to now, I've been playing well. But it's much more important to think about the team, and how it's going to perform in the matches to come.'

Already, though, the wires had been humming with rumours about his future following the tournament. Brescia are back in Serie A next season, and are being linked with Raducioiu and a third Romanian, the defender Dan Petrescu, but that still doesn't make them a big club, and the bids are already coming in for their reborn midfield genius. Tottenham Hotspur's offer may be one of the less plausible; a better bet is the interest being shown by Johan Cruyff on Barcelona's behalf.

'It's impossible to deal with these matters while the World Cup is going on,' Hagi said over and over again last week. 'When the time comes, we can think about them. I'm very happy that Cruyff should say these nice things, but there's a game coming up on Sunday, and that's what I have to think about. I'm happy if Cruyff wants me. Or Tottenham. But the important thing is that Romania win on Sunday.'

Impeccable sentiments, delivered with a modest but confident smile. And yet Iordanescu - who, as a distinguished playmaker for Steaua in the Seventies and early Eighties, was himself Hagi's idol - sounded a half-humorous note of caution before making the flattering analogy with Maradona and Cruyff. 'I'd like to mention that Hagi also played in the game against Switzerland,' he said, gently but pointedly. 'I had a discussion with him about the way he played in that game, because I wasn't very happy.'

A couple of days later, I asked Iordanescu exactly what he'd said to his star, since it seemed to have worked so well. 'There are two types of problems,' he replied, a bit reluctantly. 'There are the intimate problems that have to do with the life of the team, and there are the problems that can be discussed with the media. All I can say is that Hagi, like the rest of the players, was criticised for his performance.'

If his team-mates are right in their assessment of Hagi's true essence, and if Iordanescu's tactical and psychological acumen can help him put together another three consecutive games at the level on which he operated against Colombia and Argentina, USA '94 will have found its hero. And 25 million Romanians, at home and abroad, will know that the revolution was for real.

(Photograph omitted)