The Romania U21 side all but clinched their place at the 2019 European U21 Championships recently with two wins against Portugal and Bosnia. The team now only need two more positive results at home to Wales and Liechtenstein, both of whom are already eliminated.
This achievement is more significant considering only four years ago, the Romania U21’s suffered their worst ever defeat, an 8-0 demolition in Germany. Previously, the U21s’ biggest achievement had been qualifying for the 1998 European Championships, where they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Holland.
The 2022 Generation of the Romania National Team
Fall and Rise
The last two involvements in major competitions for the senior Romanian side came at the 2008 and 2016 Euros. At the former, the Tricolorii finished third in their group, ahead of current world-champions France but behind Italy and Holland. In 2016, they finished bottom of their group, losing 0-1 to Albania and without a goal from open play.
After a disastrous 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, which involved getting thumped 3-0 at home by Lithuania, the Romanians finished second from bottom, above only the Faroe Islands. However, around about this time, a massive shift began to take place at grassroots level in Romanian football.
Gheorghe Hagi is perhaps the name most synonymous with Romanian football. The mercurial playmaker is a cult-hero in Turkey, loved by Galatasaray fans who adore him for his time as a player in Istanbul.
In 2009, the ‘Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy’ was set up, aiming to provide young Romanian players with an opportunity to seize and ascend the ranks of professional football in Romania. With eight state-of-the-art pitches, purpose-built accommodation and catering facilities for the players, the set-up is geared to support the development of young players not only from the region but from across the country.
The academy currently receives an intake of approximately 280 players across all age groups, and 66 of those take part in their football, accommodation and schools programme. Within three years of operation, the academy was already regarded as the best youth development programme in Romania.
Viitorul Constanta is a football club that was only founded in 2009 by none other than Hagi himself. The club, based near Hagi’s own birth town of Ovidiu, near Constanta, is Gheorghe Hagi’s baby. Since its formation, the club has become synonymous for promoting young talents from its own academy, earning the nickname ‘Hagi’s Kids’.
Viitorul immediately achieved two back-to-back promotions after their formation and, in 2017, achieved their biggest success in their history, winning the national league, Liga I. All this was achieved with the philosophy of embedding academy graduates into the first team. Viitorul was the second part of the Romanian vision for football. The club has been managed by Hagi himself since 2014.
The 2018 Generation
The current crop of Romanian players can boast a lot of experience but none are stand-out talents. Vlad Chriches and Costel Pantilimon are two names who should be familiar to fans of English football. However, no player can be said to be currently playing at their peak or setting European football alight.
However, from the current national squad, Romario Benzar (26), Cristian Manea (21), Mihai Balasa (23), Razvan Marin (22) and Denis Dragus (19) are all success stories out of the Gheorghe Hagi Academy. While the team can boast experienced hands, it is at U21 level where the work of Hagi’s academy really shines.
The 2022 Generation
Virgil Ghita (20), Alexandru Cicaldau (21), Andrei Ciobanu (20), Alexandru Matan (19), Denis Dragus (19), Florinel Coman (20) and Hagi’s son himself, Ianis (19), are all regulars in the Romanian first league, Liga I. Each player is also either on the cusp of senior call-ups or have already gotten some amount of senior-level experience.
Hagi’s academy, combined with those at FCSB and Dinamo, are producing the next generation of great Romanian talents. FCSB themselves have some great talents among their ranks right now. Owner Gigi Becali is adamant he will not sell starlet Dennis Man for anything less than €30 million. There was reported interest in the player from Manchester United over the summer.
“Manchester United asked me about Dennis Man and I want €30 million. I know that they won’t pay this amount, but the player isn’t for sale,” Becali said.
Man and fellow FCSB stars Florinel Coman and Olimpiu Morutan attract interest from Europe’s elite on a frequent basis now. Most of the current 2018 U21 crop should be playing for top level European clubs in four years’ time. Some have already had that experience.
2022: Players to Watch Out For
Hagi’s son, Ianis, spent two years with Fiorentina but the Italian side didn’t work out for the junior Hagi. He eventually returned to and now captains Viitorul at 19 years of age. There are others who have had or are currently at the start of their learning curve outside of Romania. To name a few, Alexandru Mitrita, Mihai Balasa, Razvan Marin, Nicolae Stanciu, Dorin Rotariu, Alexandru Chipciu, Vlad Dragomir and Alexandru Maxim.
Mitrita, still only 23, had a two-year spell at Pescara in Italy which failed to work out for him. However, he is back in Romania and currently starring in Liga 1 with his hometown club, CS Craiova. Balasa, 23, spent four years on the books of AS Roma before returning to Romania and now plays for FCSB. Dragomir, a regular at national youth level, recently joined Italian Serie B side Perugia after his contract with Arsenal expired. Marin is only at the start of his career, currently making a name for himself in Belgium with Standard Liege.
Nicolae Stanciu recently broke the Czech Republic transfer record, moving from Anderlecht to Sparta Prague. Dorin Rotariu moved on loan to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar this summer. Chipciu and Maxim are both seasoned veterans. The former plays alongside Stanciu in Prague and Maxim now has over five years of experience playing in Germany’s Bundesliga. Both players may still be around in four years’ time.
One of the biggest Romanian transfer stories this past summer, however, was Cristian Ganea (26). The diminutive left-back was released by Craiova in 2014 and went unpaid while playing with Sageata and experienced relegation. He then moved to FC Brasov where he again went unpaid and the team went down. This was when Gheorghe Hagi intervened. In 2018, he signed for Athletic Bilbao (he holds Basque citizenship) and now plays in the same league as Lionel Messi.
2022 World Cup Expectations
A casual follower of Romanian football wouldn’t be surprised if the team qualified for the tournament in Qatar. However, an ardent follower wouldn’t be surprised if this Romanian generation takes the 2022 tournament by storm. It certainly has the talent to do so. It will only be hindered by Romanian management and bureaucracy alone.
In Cosmin Contra, the Romanians have found a very able and experienced manager. With the raw talent being nurtured in Hagi’s academy, the sky may be the limit for the next generation of Romanian youngsters.