May 29, 1998

Hagi has matured, yet not ready to head for Carpathians

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) - At 33, Gheorghe Hagi's skills have ``matured''. He is now as highly praised for his tactical as his technical ability.

Yet despite his age, the man dubbed the ``Maradona of the Carpathians'' isn't yet ready to follow his namesake into retirement, or head for the hills of his nickname.

The captain and brain, if not the inspiration, of the Romanian national side, has possibly the most storied career of any player from his nation.

And the man known to 23 million Romanians simply as Gica isn't quite ready to dis-appear into the Carpathian Mountains.

Despite a recent lackluster form by both him and Romania, he still garners respect for for his ability to coordinate and a hard left foot on free kicks.

In 109 games for Romania, a record 46 of them as captain, he has 32 goals.

With club team Galatasaray of Turkey, where he plays with fellow Romanian national teamers Gheorghe Popescu and Iulian Filipescu, Hagi has won two league titles. He charachterizes his play there as ``well, very well with some down patches.''

Hagi was the first Romanian player to leave the country following the 1989 anti-communist revolution which knocked down political and sport barriers.

He joined one of Real Madrid for a $4 million transfer fee - a high amount for an Eastern European -but had two consecutive disappointing seasons in the Spanish league and was transferred to Italy's Brescia, where he stayed for two seasons.

After the 1994 World Cup when Romania was ousted by Sweden in the quarterfinals, Hagi went to FC Barcelona for two years before going to Galatasaray.

The reputation of Romania's top playmaker has long been tarnished by inconsistency, although his left foot has been often compared to the magic left of Argentine superstar Diego Maradona.