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Gheorghe Hagi exclusive interview: How Romania legend's academy is fuelling his country's Euro 2024 appearance

Find out why the country’s greatest player, former Barcelona and Real Madrid playmaker Gheorghe Hagi, has inspired a renaissance in Romanian football with the help of his all-conquering academy. His presence will be felt at Euro 2024...

Gheorghe Hagi's academy in Constanta has been instrumental in developing this generation of Romanian players at Euro 2024
Image: Gheorghe Hagi's academy in Constanta has been instrumental in developing this generation of Romanian players at Euro 2024

Gheorghe Hagi is Romania’s greatest player. A legend at both Steaua Bucharest and Galatasaray, he also played for Real Madrid and Barcelona as well as lighting up three World Cups in the 1990s. But the Hagi story did not end there.

Improbably, his contribution to football in his country as a player might just be outstripped by the significance of his work since retirement. When Romania play at Euro 2024 in Germany, many of the squad will owe it to his self-funded academy.

Dismayed by the decline of the national team - Romania have not qualified for a World Cup since Hagi retired - he decided to do something about it and started the Gheorghe Hagi Academy. Five of Romania's squad this summer are graduates.

PAS20:WORLD CUP:PASADENA,CALIFORNIA,3JUL94- Romania's Gheorghe Hagi celebrates after kicking the game-winning goal in the second half against Argentina in their 2nd round World Cup game in Pasadena, July 3. Romania defeated Argentina 3-2 to advance to the quarter finals. bps/Sam Mircovich REUTER (LEA SUZUKI/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Image: Hagi starred for Romania in the 1994 World Cup in the United States

"The academy was created with the goal of giving young people a chance to succeed," Hagi tells Sky Sports. "We show them the path that they need to follow, but it is their ambition, their desire to be the best that must make the difference."

There are currently around 600 children within his academy, aged between six and 18 years old. The best of these, 11 in each age group from 13 to 18, are part of a special programme. They are given accommodation, schooling, nutrition, medical treatment and more.

Hagi once declared that his aim was to develop future world champions in Romania. That was his goal as a player and, now 59, he is not quite ready to give up the dream just yet. Fiercely competitive on the field, that mentality of a winner remains.

"Our mentality is to be the best. Romanian football has always had very talented players. But no one is born the best, they become the best through a lot of work, through ambition. Everyone needs a chance because life is about opportunities."

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Hagi was heavily influenced by his own opportunity to work with Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, that mantra of simplicity is best staying with him. As a player, he was dubbed the Maradona of the Carpathians. As an administrator, he has looked to the Netherlands.

Through visits to some of their best academies, he developed a vision for his own. Constanta, a coastal city east of Bucharest, is not the biggest of places but it is where the best Romanian talent now heads. The draw is obvious. Selection rigorous.

"It is very important to know what kind of players you want, what qualities you are looking for in a player. We have coaches who suggest various players, we have partnerships with various junior clubs in the country. There is a strategy in everything we do."

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From a very young age, the training principles of the academy are clear, the methodology is in place. They preach the three Ts. It is about time with teenagers with talent. "That is our philosophy," says Hagi. As a result, the list of graduates is impressive and growing.

Ianis Hagi, his own son, is among them. But also among the Euro 2024 squad there is Razvan Marin, now playing in Serie A. There is Alexandru Cicaldau, Florinel Coman and Denis Dragus. Recent call-up, Constantin Grameni, joined the academy aged just six.

Constantin Grameni of Romania U21 in action during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship 2025 Qualifying round game between Romania U21 and Finland U21, at Municipal Stadium, in Sibiu, Romania, October 17, 2023.
Image: Constantin Grameni is just the latest academy graduate to link up with the Romania squad

How important is the academy to Romania? "I do not know, I will let others answer that question," says Hagi, modestly. In truth, he knows the answer. Each year, on average, 47 current or former academy players are called up for the various national teams.

"Nationally, we are the best. We do not say this, the federation does, which year after year ranks us first among the top academies. It is a source of pride. It means we are doing well and gives us the motivation to believe that things will get better and better."

Romania's Group E fixtures

Jun 17: Romania vs Ukraine, Munich

Jun 22: Belgium vs Romania, Cologne

Jun 26: Slovakia vs Romania, Frankfurt

Twenty players in total have now gone on to represent the senior side. Notably, at the U21 European Championships in 2019, Romania had 10 players in their squad from his academy. Sixty academy graduates have now featured in Romania's top division.

It helps that there is a tie-in with Farul Constanta, the top-division club that Hagi manages. It is a natural home for graduates of the Gheorghe Hagi Academy - and the relationship works. They won the title in 2023. Not that trophies are the main objective.

"The objective of the senior team, regardless of the moment, is to debut players from the academy every year. And with these young people, to whom we offer confidence, we have won the championship twice, being the youngest champion in Europe."

Gheorghe Hagi of Farul Constanta poses with the trophy during the Round 9 of Liga 1 Romania Play-off match between Farul Constanta and FCSB at Gheorghe Hagi Academy Central Stadium on May 21, 2023 in Constanta, Romania.
Image: Gheorghe Hagi won the Romanian title with Farul Constanta in 2023

How does it feel to have so many players at Euro 2024? "Joy. Pride. This means, as I said at the start, that the Romanian player is talented, but you need to find them, give them a chance, space to develop, to grow in a good environment to help them perform."

Hagi intends to keep doing so. There are big plans for the future.

"We currently have 11 fields, all with night lighting, and we continue to build others. There will also be a school in the area, we have our own hotel within the academy that will host the junior groups, with all the necessary facilities for their development."

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It is an extraordinary tale, one few could have predicted. Hagi was a maverick as a player, a hot-headed soloist. In this second act, he has become the great facilitator. In doing so, a man who did remarkable things on the pitch continues to make the magic happen off it.

It is said that the Greek hero Jason stopped off in Constanta after finding the Golden Fleece. Hagi is in search of a different treasure. "The youth are the gold of each country," he says. "They are the future. We must help them to become the best that they can be."

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