REMEMBER THIS? SPORT'S MAGIC MOMENTS OF 1994 : Hagi's masterpiece of ju dgement and timing From the try that gave Great Britain hope to the goal that even Pele would have been proud of

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL : A measure of Gheorghe Hagi's feat was that some doubted his intentions. Nobody means to score from there, they argued, not from such a narrow angle on the touchline, the ball's flight so deceiving Colombia's goalkeeper that he was powe rless to prevent it curling into the top far corner.

Hagi meant it all right. This was his calling card, a masterpiece of judgement and timing that announced a superior presence. "We have come to expect such things of him," Romania's coach, Anghel Iordanescu, said. "Gheorghe is for us what Pele was for Brazil and Cruyff for the Netherlands."

For Hagi it would be a World Cup of glorious opportunity. A huge disappointment in the colours of Real Madrid, barely able to hold down a place with Brescia in Italy, he was reborn. Ultimately disappointed by a loss to Sweden in the quarter finals but unquestionably an outstanding figure in the tournament.

Romania's emphasis on possession suited Hagi perfectly. It came to mind that he is very much in the mould of what used to be a typical inside-forward. Shortish, stocky, well balanced, imaginative, with excellent touch, and a canny passer. "I've been in the national team for many years, people know about me, so why are they excited," Hagi said.

It was because Hagi, encouraged by Iordanescu's willingness to accommodate physical limitations and a wayward temperament, was playing the best football of his career.

Interestingly, things have gone against Hagi since he returned from the United States to sign for Barcelona. He covets the ball too much for Johann Cruyff's liking. Sometimes he isn't even selected among the substitutes.

Always in football, there are such considerations of style. Much the same applies to Ilie Dumitrescu. Having stood out alongside Hagi in the World Cup he is surplus to requirements at Tottenham.

In all sorts of ways USA '94 proved to be a huge success but not the triumph of evangelism a lot of people foolishly imagined. Football's last frontier remains unconquered. Less than a month after the circus left town it had almost been forgotten. Major League Soccer, optimistically promised for April next year, has been deferred. It may never happen.

The memories are better. A constant swirl of exhilarating play in the openings rounds. The excitement generated by enthusiastic if largely naive audiences. Brazil restored as the game's leading power.

To suppose that they fully represented a romantic tradition is loose thinking. In truth, Carlos Alberto Parreira and his advisor, Mario Zagalo, sent out the best coached, most effectively organised and defensively secure team in the tournament.

Once again there was no towering figure and, sadly, no sign of an emerging talent. Most of the attacking thrills were provided by players who will be at the veteran stage in 1998; Romario, Bebeto, Stoichkov, Jurgen Klinsmann.

The disgraced Diego Maradona has already gone. And, of course, Hagi. Hagi, who had the skill and imagination to attempt something even Pele would have been proud of.