- Ianis Hagi reflects on Romania’s U-21 success
- Son of national legend Gheorghe helped book Tokyo 2020 ticket
- Midfielder now set for first UEFA Champions League season with Genk
The last time you saw Romania – a football nation with a storied history – at any global tournament was over two decades ago during the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. For an Olympics, it was 55 years.
All that’s set to change, though, with a familiar name on the team sheet for those who witnessed their golden – and blonde – generation in France: Ianis Hagi. The son of national legend Gheorghe, he was born three months after that tournament, but was instrumental when booking their return to global action at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020.
Romania shone tremendously at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in June, going from bottom-ranked outsiders to group-topping national darlings. “I don’t think anyone expected us to go to the semis, not even our own country,” the 20-year-old told FIFA.com.
While talk of another golden crop are being kept on ice for now, their wins over Croatia and England were emphatic. “There were so many ups and downs in that last 15 minutes,” he said, discussing their eventual 4-2 win over England, having given up the lead twice in a frenetic climax. “It was great how we mentally stayed strong and kept pushing.”
A draw against France then confirmed what they were hoping for. “Winning the group and qualifying for the Olympics was a great mixture of emotions. We made our country proud. People were coming from Romania to Italy to see us play there and now everybody has been telling us they’ll come to the Olympics, too!”
Growing up with a famous name
Realising he had a famous father
“As I grew up, seeing my dad being stopped in the street or airport, with people asking for photos and everything, I just realised. And then I’ve loved football my whole life, so I was always on the internet checking videos and I also had some videos at home of what he did in football history.”
Attending the academy his father ran
“It was a little bit difficult at the beginning, I was young – just ten years old – and I didn’t know how to make my team-mates feel good around me but afterwards I realised it’s just football – it doesn’t matter who you are or whose son you are. Then everything just came naturally, creating friendships with my team-mates and I’m still keeping in touch with them ten years on.”
Comparisons to his father
“We’re different types of players, even though we play in the same position (attacking midfield). He was much faster and predominantly left footed, while I’m a different player but I hope I have the same mentality and ambition. I still have to learn from him because he knows how to move around the field from that position.”
The bond between this side of fledgling players promises much, with many having studied together at the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy. “We have played together for a long time. Most of us grew in my father’s academy, there were about ten us from there. I think some of the players will make the next step into the senior squad.”
A last-gasp defeat to Germany ended their journey, but before the trappings of Tokyo roll into view, there is a potentially pivotal season ahead. A new recruit at Belgian champions Genk, he’ll be making a step up from the Romanian cup winners Viitorul Constanta – currently coached by his father – to UEFA Champions League football.
It couldn’t have started better, scoring a winner with his first touch in Belgian football something Hagi put down to “just my instinct”. A mixed start, though, has ensured his feet are staying on the ground in the search for chemistry, though.
“Everything will go brick by brick and get better. The next day you always have to start again. Maybe that’s why football is so beautiful, because every three days or so you get a chance to prove yourself all over again.”
He’ll be hoping to prove himself in Romanian colours on the road to UEFA EURO 2020 next - having debuted for the seniors in November 2018, with meetings with Spain and Malta next up. “Everything with the national team is going in a good direction," he said.
“It will take some time until we are back on track, so we have to still work and still push, but maybe with this new generation, alongside the present generation already there, we can make a good mixture and qualify. This is the most important thing – qualifying for the EUROs and the World Cup – so I think we are on a good path.”