The Road to Rangers – Ianis Hagi

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It felt like a real statement of intent when on Wednesday evening the club announced the signing of Ianis Hagi on a permanent transfer from Genk. He is one of the hottest prospects on the continent right now, sporting one of the most recognisable surnames in European football. And he belongs to us.

There is a reason we’re so excited about this kid. He arrives at Ibrox with the highest of recommendations and a personal drive to make the move work. We know the quality that Hagi brings to the side, and for a fee of just £3.3m it appears to be a no-lose situation for the club – a very rare type of transfer. Sadly, gone are the days where Rangers can attract the global superstars of the game while they are in their prime. However, we are in the privileged position to be able to attract today’s hot-prospects and turn them into tomorrows superstars. Of this category, Hagi most certainly fits the bill.

But how did we mange to attract one of the most sought-after youngsters in the European game? What effect has walking in the footsteps of his great father had on his life and career? Did Ross Wilson wear a balaclava as he robbed Genk of this talent?

Ladies and Gentlemen welcome back to The Road to Rangers. We will begin in with the birth of a legend.

Gheorghe Hagi and The Birth of the Hagi Legend

In the last Road to Rangers,we discussed how you cannot create a dialogue about the career of Brian Laudrup without first considering the family from which he came. The case is the same, if not even more so, with Ianis Hagi.

Gheorghe Hagi is a man who needs no introduction. A legend of 90s football, he is considered to be the greatest Romanian footballer of all time. He had an astonishing career as he graced the field for the likes of Steaua Bucharest, both sides of the ELClassco divide and Turkish giants Galatasaray. He collected a wealth of honours during his career, including two Spanish Super Cups, four Turkish titles, two Turkish Cups, two Turkish Super Cups, the UEFA Cup and the UEFA super cup as well as being a European Cup runner up in 1989 with Steaua Bucharest.

Gheorghe Hagi with a young Ianis Hagi, 2002

He became a god-like figure to many In Romania for his performances with the national side. Named in the team of the tournament at USA ’94, he went on to become the second highest capped player in Romanian history with 124 caps (it was at the time the highest but has subsequently been overtaken by Dorinel Munteanu with 134) and is still the countries joint highest ever goal scorer alongside Adrian Mutu, with 35 goals. He captained Romania to the round of 16 in the 1998 World Cup and in doing so topped their group which included England.

At the conclusion of his playing career in 2001, Gheorghe Hagi began a career as a coach. After coaching the Romanian national side, he had two spells with Galatasaray (in which he won the Turkish cup after beating Fenerbahçe 5-1 in the final). One of the most interesting anecdotes about Hagi Sr’s coaching career is that he had an ill-fated stint in charge of Steaua Bucharest where he managed to secure progression to the Champions League group stages for just the second time in the clubs history. However, Hagi was constantly in conflict with the infamous Bucharest owner Gigi Becali. The interesting thing about this particular conflict is that Gheorghe Hagi is actually Becali’s godson. He resigned shortly after Bucharest’s 2-1 loss to Slavia Prague in their first Champions League Group game.

It was this experience that affected Gheorghe Hagi’s next steps in his career as it added to his growing disillusionment with working under others. In 2009, Gheorghe Hagi founded a team of his own, Viitorul Constanta. They enrolled in the third tier of Romanian football and in 2014 Gherghe Hagi appointed himself as manager of the side. Since then, they have known nothing but success having won the league, cup and super cup under his stewardship.

Following in the footsteps of a legend like Gheorghe Hagi would be a daunting task for anyone and Ianis could have been forgiven for wanting to live an easy life away from this kind of pressure and expectation. But, inspired by his father, he grew up with the same passion for the game and it is from there that Ianis Hagi’s road to Rangers began.

The Early Years and Viitorul Constanta: 1998-2016

Ianis Hagi was born in October 1998 in Istanbul while his father was playing for Galatasaray and he spent the first few years of his life growing up there. The influence of his father on Hagi’s career can be seen at an early age as when his father became the manager of Steaua Bucharest, an 8-year-old Hagi joined their youth ranks and after the resignation of his father, Hagi was enrolled in the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy (GHFA). The GHFA was founded alongside Viitorul Constanta in 2009 by Gheorghe Hagi and has grown into one of the biggest and most successful football academies In the south east of Europe, with the graduates of the academy became known as ‘Hagi’s Kids’.

“Gheorghe’s ambition was to show other club owners the right way to do things in football,” Catalin Andrei, a leading journalist at Sport ProTV, told ESPN. “He wanted to build an academy similar to those he witnessed at Real Madrid and Barcelona, while also gathering information from Ajax and AC Milan.”

A selection of Ianis Hagi’s goals scored for the academy side can be found in the YouTube link below.

Hagi spent 5 years from 2009-2014 learning his trade at the academy while his father managed the senior team and at the age of 16, Hagi made his debut for Viitorul Constanta, coming on in the final minute of a 2-1 defeat to FC Botosani on 5th December 2014. He went on to make 6 further appearances for the side that season as Hagi Sr gently introduced his son to first team football. His first goal came in the final league game of the season which also happened to be against FC Botosani, with a brilliant scissor-kick effort. You can see how much it clearly meant to both father and son as Hagi ran across with his teammates to celebrate this milestone with his father on the touchline.

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Hagi in action for Viitorul Constanta, 2016

Hagi pushed on from this and made the 2015/16 season his breakout season where he announced himself as one of the hottest young prospects in global football. As well as cementing a regular place in the Viitorul squad, he was handed the captaincy and made his first appearance as club captain in a 2-1 win against SC U Craiova in August of that season. While it would be understandable to simply dismiss Hagi receiving the captaincy as any sort of achievement because he is the managers son, Michael Yokhin writing for ESPN argues differently:

“You might call a coach who promotes his 16-year-old son into the first team and then sensationally makes him the captain an outrageous case of nepotism. But when the coach in question is Gheorghe Hagi, and his team is playing the best football in the league, and the young midfielder Ianis Hagi is just one of a great group of potential stars who grew up at a superb academy, the situation must be viewed differently”.

Hagi went on to have some blistering performances that season, scoring three goals. Throughout the season Hagi’s position was chopped and changed depending on what the team needed at the time. He predominantly played out on the right wing but was moved to play in behind the striker and even out on the left wing when required. Such is his ability with both feet, the move from one wing to the other proved to not be an issue. In October of that season Hagi was named as one of the top 50 best young footballers in world football by the Guardian. The paper picked one young talent from 50 nations and tracked their progress with an annual update every October. One man who has been tracking the progress of Hagi is someone Rangers fans may already be familiar with from twitter, Emanuel Rosu (@Emishor). An expert on Romanian football, he has been tracking Hagi since the formative years of his career and was one of the first to break the story that Rangers would be in line to sign him both in January and now on a permanent basis. He told the Guardian in 2015:

“Ianis Hagi seems to be coping well, despite his father’s best attempts to build him up even more. [Hagi Sr said] ‘He is way better than I was at his age’. ‘He is full of talent and he is a future Romania captain and leader. His quality is amazing’”.

Fiorentina: 2016-2018

The high praise that Ianis Hagi was attracting meant it was inevitable that he would attract the attention of some of the biggest names in Europe and in July 2016 Fiorentina payed Viitorul Constanta €2m for his services.

This seemed like Hagi’s next big step forward in his career by moving to one of the top five leagues in Europe. Of course, his father before him had played in Italywith Brescia. However, this move proved to be ill fated for the as he only went on to make two senior appearances for the club, both off the bench, against Cagliari and one the final day of the season against Pescara.

Often relegated to the U19s, Hagi spent 19 consecutive games as an unused substitute on the bench between January and May 2017, as Fiorentina managed an 8th place finish in Serie A under manager Paulo Sousa. However, despite this setback he was nominated for the prestigious European Golden Boy Award in April 2017 alongside the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Ousmane Dembele, Marcus Rashford, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Kylian Mbappe, to name but a few. This was yet another indication to the global footballing audience that Hagi was up there with the best of the best in his age group. 

Hagi remained at Fiorentina for the 2017/18 season but the lack of first team opportunities remained a frustration for the youngster as he was once again either relegated to the U19s or left on the bench despite the change of manager when Stefano Pioli replaced Sousa. Hagi failed to make a single appearance for Fiorentina that season and Gheorghe realised it was time to rescue his son from this career purgatory.

Viitorul Constanta: 2018-2019

Hagi returned to Viitorul Constanta on 18th January 2018. Gheorghe Hagi agreed to pay the same amount Fiorentina had paid for his son (€2m) plus a 30% sell-on clause Into the deal  to ensure Ianis Hagi returned home. Subsequently, Gheorghe Hagi compared the way Fiorentina was ran to the Romanian dictatorship under General Nicolae Ceausescu saying:

“They fined him because he said he was disappointed at not playing for the club. Corvino [The Fiorentina Director of Football] does everything there, he’s a worse dictator than General Ceausescu!”

Hagi picked up where he left off in Constanta, re-taking the armband and scoring 6 goals with 4 assists to help Viitorul finish 5th in the league. To compliment his fine second half of the season, Hagi was once again nominated for the European Golden Boy Award.

Hagi followed up this strong end to the 2017/18 season by having the greatest season of his career to date, making 39 appearances for his club scoring 14 goals with 8 assists. Hagi captained his team to cup glory this season, as they overcame Astra Giurgiu 2-1 in the final of the Romanian cup. This was the first cup final that Viitorul had qualified for and, with the absence of Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest and CFR Cluj, a massive opportunity for both Ianis Hagi and Hagi’s Kids’ to claim their first Romanian Cup victory. They managed to come back from a goal down to force the final into extra time. Eric Pereria clinched the winner to ensure that Viitorul and Hagi got their hands on the Romanian Cup for the first time.

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Hagi lifts the Romanian Cup with his teammates, 2019

Romanian U21 National Team: U21 European Championships 2019

Hagi impressed so much at an early age that he was being asked to represent his country at every level from U15, U16, U17, U18, U19 and U21 teams before earning his first senior cap in 2018.

It wasn’t all plain sailing as Hagi rose through the International ranks, however. In 2015 there was a scandal in Romanian football when Hagi accused the high ranking Romanian official Zoltan Kovacs of disrespecting both himself and other graduates of the GHFA by making them carry his bags around while on a trip to the Netherlands. As a result of Gheorghe Hagi speaking out saying it was unacceptable behaviour and Ianis Hagi threatening to quit the national side, Kovacs was promptly sacked thus demonstrating the importance of the Hagi family to Romanian football.

As a result, Hagi continued to play for the national side and helped Romania to qualify for the U21 European Championships for just the second time in their history. Hagi was a consistent performer in the qualification campaign, scoring 4 goals and making 2 assists. Just 9 months previously to the tournament beginning, Hagi had scored directly from a corner for the Romanian U21 side against Bosnia and Herzegovina and 2 months after that earned his first senior international cap in a 3-0 victory over Lithuania in the UEFA Nations League.

Romania, on paper, were not handed much luck with the draw for the group stages of the U21 Euros as they were drawn in a group of death containing themselves, Croatia, England and France.

In their opening game against Croatia, George Puscas sent the Romanians on their way with an early penalty in the 11th minute. 3 minutes later, Puscas effort mixed with a goalkeeping error lead to the Croatian defenders clearing the ball off the line straight into the path of Hagi who slammed the ball home to put Romania 2-0 inside the first 15 minutes. Despite Croatia pulling one goal back, Romania turned on the style and ran out 4-1 winners.

Their second group game came against England and this is arguably the game that made people in the UK sit up and take notice of Hagi. This can be described as a bit of a mental game in all honesty (If you haven’t yet seen the highlights, a link is below) with the game ending in a 4-2 win to Romania and all 6 goals coming in the final 18 minutes of the game. Demarai Gray cancelled out anther Puscas penalty to make the game evenly poised at 1-1 going into the final 5 minutes. Chelsea’s Fikayo Tomori failed to deal with a high ball up to him and gifted the ball to Hagi, who with his first touch with his right foot took it past him and his second touch with his left foot drilled it low past Dean Henderson in goal. Despite a late Tammy Abraham goal to make it 2-2, Florinel Coman scored in the 89th and 93rd minute to seal the win and secure Romania’s place in the knockout stages. Romania then topped their group on goal difference after a 0-0 draw with France in Cessena, with both teams having already qualified for the Semi-finals.

Hagi celebrates his goal against England U21s, 2019

Romania came up against Germany in the Semi-final on 27th June 2019. Romania bowed out of the tournament at this stage after Germany overcame them 4-2 meaning that Romania had achieved their highest ever finish at the tournament. Hagi’s had caught the eye of some of the biggest names in European football. Hasan Salihamidzic and Michael Zorc, the Sporting Directors of both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund respectively, were both in attendance to scout Hagi. It had been previously stated that Dortmund had previously contacted Gheorghe Hagi to try and lay the framework for a potential transfer. Further to that, it was reported that Hagi’s performances had also caught the eye of Ajax, Sevilla and Hoffenheim.

Genk: 2019-2020

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Hagi being announced at Genk, 2019

After the U21 Euros, Hagi Sr had teams blowing up his phone for the opportunity to acquire Ianis’ signature. Despite large sums of money being offered in both transfer fees and wages from Russia, Germany, Spain and England (including one offer of €15m from a top Russian side, Hagi decided along with his father that he would join the reigning champions of Belgium, Genk, for a fee of €8m, for which Fiorentina received a reported €2.4m as part of the sell-on clause they negotiated into Hagi’s deal to return to Viitorul. Despite the money being thrown at them, Gherghe Hagi explained why they had chosen Genk as Ianis’ next destination.

“It’s a good sum for us, he went to a very good team, which won the championship, plays in the Champions League, a team that grows players. We’ve had very high offers, for a lot of money, some medium offers and a more normal offer with a good technical project, which we chose”.

Hagi’s debut came off the bench at home to Kortrijk where he scored the winner in a 2-1 win with another brilliant scissor-kick effort. He then pushed on from there adding an assist 3 games later against Waasl-Beveren before a brace and an assist against Sint-Truden in a 3-3 draw.

However, a poor start to the season saw the head coach Felice Mazzu sacked and replaced by ex-Hamburg manager Hannes Wolf. Along with Hagi, Genk had also bought in Theo Bongonda and Junya Ito who were both being given first team opportunities ahead of Hagi. As the game time fell, the frustrations grew and lead to a breakdown in the relationship between Wolf and Hagi. This opened the door for Hagi to move out on loan and potentially permanently in the January transfer window, and that’s exactly what he did.

Rangers: 2020

We are all aware of the impact that Hagi had when he came on loan to Rangers, so we won’t go into detail about that here (but the goal against Hibs and the Braga highlights are absolutely included in the YouTube highlights section). We will instead look at the events that lead to Hagi committing his long-term future to the club.

Hagi claimed to The Athletic that he knew he wanted to sign on permanently after just 2 days at the club, naming everything from the history of Rangers to the facilities as reasons for wanting to make the move permanently. In his short spell at the club he built up good relationships with the players and the coaching staff meaning that after the season was cut short, Hagi made it crystal clear to both Genk, his agents and to Rangers that he only had Glasgow on his mind. Gheorghe Hagi also influenced his sons decision, having played at Ibrox twice in his career for both Steaua Bucharest and Galatasaray, he had nothing but positive words to say about the atmosphere Ibrox can generate.

This proved to be Ross Wilsons first financial outlay since becoming Rangers Director of Football and he managed to negotiate the fee down from the initial £4.5m agreed to just £3.3m to be paid in 3 instalments (with £1m up-front).

As business goes this does seem like a strong start a the summer transfer window that will be like no other and ensuring Hagi will be wearing the light-blue jersey next season gives a sense of certainty to the squad in deeply uncertain times. When we do see Rangers again, we will be hoping for some more moments of magic – both on the pitch and in his interviews.

As the man himself said,

“Ibrox baby. It’s just different”.

YouTube Clips:

Academy + Romanian youth team goals compilation – https://youtu.be/JysEnZAGKLg
Debut for Viitorul Constanta – https://youtu.be/N3Bsw9_me4k
First goal for Viitorul Constanta – https://youtu.be/0Uy2KTyvh2U
2018/19 season highlights – https://youtu.be/MLmjLnjKLMI
Goal direct from corner vs Bosnia and Herzegovina U21s – https://youtu.be/68Snf-PAkLs
Goal vs Croatia U21s – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAaNO8wx-w4
Goal vs England U21s – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8clg4gCqIcA&t=100s
Genk ‘Welcome Hagi’ video – https://youtu.be/lUkjsM9tMEc
Goal vs Kortrijk – https://youtu.be/Jo96AfsVLbM
Goal vs Hibs – https://youtu.be/HZDDzKDykI0
Rangers vs Sporting Braga – https://youtu.be/YGTl3fTRX8w
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