Thursday 27 September 2018, 10:33

Contra and Hagi sparking Romanian revival

  • Romania have missed out on the last five FIFA World Cups

  • Now on the up again and in best Ranking position since 2016

  • Cosmin Contra and Gheorge Hagi both contributing to that rise

In 1998, Romania looked to be at an all-time high. They had just returned from a third successive FIFA World Cup™ and, as with the two before, they had made it through the group phase.

But before France 1998 had even kicked off, the team’s talisman, Gheorghe Hagi, delivered an ominous warning. “Romanian football,” he said, “will be dead in ten years’ time.” Hagi insisted that the performances of the country’s golden generation had “hidden” the systemic problems that would lead to this inevitable decline. And his words proved to be eerily prophetic.

While it has not perished, Romanian football has remained in the doldrums since those glory days of the 1990s. The Russia 2018 qualifiers merely continued a depressing theme, with the team finishing fourth in their section – behind Montenegro and 12 points adrift of group winners Poland.

But Romania now look to be on the up again, and it is Hagi and a former international team-mate of his who are receiving the plaudits. Cosmin Contra, whose international career began just as Hagi’s was winding down, is now Romania’s coach. He hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his celebrated former colleague. Indeed, the pair become embroiled in a dispute earlier this year over Contra’s decision not to pick Hagi’s son, Ianis.

Nonetheless, their combined efforts are providing fresh and genuine hope to their country’s beleaguered football fans.

The coach: Cosmin Contra

With Contra, the results speak for themselves. Before his appointment in September of last year, Romania had won just three of their previous 13 matches. Of the ten fixtures since his arrival, they have won six and lost just one, with Chile, Sweden and Turkey among the teams beaten.

Their most recent outing, a 2-2 UEFA Nations League draw away to Serbia in which they twice came from behind, underlined the progress that has been made under Contra’s leadership. It also helped take Romania up to 27th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – their highest position since 2016.

The performances of the U-21 side offer yet more encouragement. Unbeaten and top of a group that includes Portugal and Switzerland, they are on the verge of qualifying for the country’s first UEFA European U-21 Championship since, you guessed it, 1998. Their position was further strengthened last month by a 2-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina in which a certain Ianis Hagi scored direct from a corner.

The visionary: Gheorghe Hagi

Hopes are high for Ianis, 19. "Technically, he is twice as good as his father was at his age,” claimed former national team coach Victor Piturca.

But though he has predicted that his “amazing” son will be a “very important player for Romania’s future”, Hagi Snr’s contribution extends far beyond his offspring. More tangible and substantial is the club and academy he ploughed his fortune into in 2009, and which has flourished beyond all expectations.

Viitorul, which translates as ‘Future’, began life in the third tier of Romanian football but, just eight years later, won the top-flight title – becoming the first team from Hagi’s home region of Dobruja to do so. More pertinently for the national team, its impressive and prolific academy has already provided several players to the national team, and many more to the country’s ever-improving youth sides.

As Hagi told The Guardian last year: “Romania must invest in youth. It’s the only way we can create a new generation of players, like the one I was part of, that can challenge everybody. Maybe we can nurture an even better one. That’s the goal I have.”