“Puștii lui Hagi”: The trials and tribulations of FC Viitorul Constanța

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(To the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’) “And number one is Gheorghe Hagi. And number two is Gheorghe Hagi… and number eleven is Gheorghe Hagi… all I want is a team of Gheorghe Hagis, a team of Gheorghe Hagis, a team of Gheorghe Hagis.” You get the idea. I can’t imagine the great man ever heard that laborious chant that we’re so accustomed to in the UK. However, with the team we’re looking at in this article, such was the aim to produce prodigal copies of the Romanian icon from a remarkable academy that the team became known as ‘Puștii lui Hagi’, or ‘Hagi’s Kids’. So, let’s retrace the steps of FC Viitorul Constanța, a South-eastern European flash in the pan founded, lost and ultimately reborn in the hands of the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’.

Legend-fuelled prelude

Gheorghe Hagi was a wonderful footballer. Whether it was in the blue and red of Steaua or Barcelona, the white of Real, or the red and yellow of Galatasaray or Romania – Hagi dazzled. Control. Grace. Not too tall in stature at 5’9, but he could drive at players and strike the ball with such power. One of the greatest number 10s ever was Gheorghe. His career was embodied by supreme skill, powered by an undeterred arrogance. It sometimes let him down, but sheer genius made up for the rebellious nature more often than not. But where did it all start, I hear you ask? (Stay with us, it’s cyclic).

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Săcele, Constanța. Born in 1965 to Chirata and Iancu Hagi, Gheorghe enjoyed the company and guidance of his namesake grandfather. A humble Aromanian shepherd, who had fled Greece to Romania and settled near the Black Sea, it seemed his relationship inspired a certain grit and determination in the youngster. Moving into football, Gheorghe took on guidance from another mentor – coach Iosif Bükössy at FC Constanța. Bükössy likely noticed a fiery attitude but an accompanying, innate skill – levels beyond his years.

As a teen, the attacking midfielder made waves. The Romanian Football Federation pushed him onto Luceafărul București for development. He stayed there for two years. Sandwiched between his placement with the FC Constanța youth setup, Hagi honed some formidable skills and at 17 he made his debut for the first team. Seven goals in 18 games had chins wagging, and a year later he moved on to Sportul Studențesc București. Despite his somewhat inevitable move to the nation’s capital, an arena where larger clubs loomed, Hagi never forgot his home county. It was a place where ultimately he had forged the foundations of his craft. Shirking, squirming runs. The mastering of that sublime first touch – getting it JUST right. 

Four years with the ‘Studenții’ gave Hagi the stage to shine. He scored a ridiculous 58 in 108 before Steaua came snooping for his signature. You likely know the rest. Silverware yielding domestic displays for Steaua. Impressive cult performances at the 1990 World Cup. It led to Madrid being the next destination as his career took on an intriguing flight path. It would be, though, a flight that always returned home.

An eventual return: giving back to Constanța

Hagi retired in 2001 at Galatasaray, aged 36. Seemingly immediately, he took up management. However, those early days in the dugout were apparently as cult as his twilight exploits for Gala. He bounced from six months in the Romanian top job to Bursaspor. Then in 2004, it was back to the red and yellow part of Istanbul where although a Turkish cup win over Fenerbahçe was a highlight, his contract wasn’t renewed. After this came extremely brief stints back in the homeland with (now defunct) Politehnica Timișoara and FCSB. One more throw of the dice came back with Gala in 2010, yet it just wasn’t to be. Gheorghe Hagi the manager was found wanting.

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Now, it seemed best for the weary traveller to return from his wandering ways. Back in Constanța, he had already begun to lay important foundations. 2009 was a big year. Just before his second managerial stint at Galatasaray, Hagi set up the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy. Eyes were fixed firmly down the line as this notably ran parallel with another of Hagi’s creations – FC Viitorul Constanța. ‘Viitorul’ itself translates to English as ‘the future’ and befittingly the academy which cost €11 million to develop, was a direct pipeline to the first team. In fact, since the club’s creation, it was an integral cog in the Romanian youth system. With the best facilities and coaching, gems were unearthed. From 2009 to 2021, six Romanian full internationals were developed as well as 28 players who had represented the country across youth levels

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With this exciting project whirring in the background, as well as his son Ianis playing there, Gheorghe took up the managerial role in 2014. Now, he was the gaffer, founder, owner and chairman. Total football? Try total control.

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2014 to the present day – successes and failures

Now, the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’ has been used before on Football Bloody Hell. However, with Hagi (and despite his millions in career earnings) there is a modicum of truth to the proverb. From 2014, he had the best managerial stint in his career. Granted, who was going to sack him, himself? At the point of his tactical takeover, FC Viitorul had kept their status in the Romanian top tier. After starting life in the third division (Liga III) and acquiring the playing rights of CSO Ovidiu, the approach to the summit was smooth with back-to-back promotions. By the time the owner took the reigns, his side had already spent two years as an Liga I outfit – albeit involved in continuous relegation battles.

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His first term was an addition to the trend, but the season after he moulded his boys into a revelation as they stormed up the 2015/16 rankings to an impressive, European football earning, fifth place. Although they were no match for Gent in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round (they notably lost 5-0), it was a head turning development and it earned the head coach Romania Coach of the Year.

A year later in 2017, Hagi outdid his top five finish and led the team to the Liga I title. This was the first major trophy for the club and only the boss’ second as a manager. It was his second annual Romanian manager award too. What was even more impressive was the effectiveness of the underlying academic structure. With the average age of the squad being 22.2 years, the press dubbed the victorious Viitorul ‘Puștii lui Hagi’ or ‘Hagi’s Kids’. They were the youngest side crowned league champions of any country in Europe. Another foray into European football was yet another milestone. This time in the Champions League third qualifying round, APOEL knocked them out 1-4 on aggregate.

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True redemption in Constanța?

Milestones aside, Hagi and the club’s next real, big triumph would continue to adhere to that kids’ moniker. Quite literally. A Cupa României (league cup) win held a familial aspect as Gheorghe coached his son Ianis as part of the youthful squad that included the likes of Denis Drăguş (now at Standard Liège), Valentin Cojocaru (now at OH Leuven) and Tudor Băluţă (once of Brighton, now back in Romania). 2019 would see another addition to the trophy cabinet with the Supercupa following victory over that season’s title winners, CFR Cluj.

Unfortunately, as financial aspects behind the scenes slowly worsened, so did league form. From that league cup win in 2019, they slipped from third down to 7th in 2020, before dissolving in 2021. Now, after researching this topic, I’d like to band about the aforementioned subhead term ‘redemption’ loosely. Here are the facts. Viitorul dissolved in 2021. Remember FC Constanța, Gheorghe’s first team? Well, they had financial difficulties too and went bankrupt in 2016 before reforming as Club Farul Constanța. In 2018, their brand was bought out by former Romania international, Ciprian Marica. Marica had plans for this new entity playing in Europe. 

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In June of 2021, the virtually semi-pro Farul merged with Viitorul. Marica, Hagi and Gheorge Popescu announced the new side would take their place in Liga I. It’s worth noting Popescu, the Viitorul chairman at the time, had previously served time for tax evasion and money laundering. He was also Hagi’s teammate and brother-in-law. His dodgy dealings involved transfers of Romanian players to foreign leagues. Paired with the fact Farul acquired Viitorul’s academy, league place and stadium whilst Hagi’s former project completely disappeared: something smells fishy and it’s not the Black Sea. 

Regardless, life in Romania’s top league goes on. As does Hagi’s managerial career, where he continues with the new merger team FCV Farul Constanța. Last term they finished fifth. To end in a bleak tone, they are down as an SA. An SA, or Societate pe Acțiuni in Romanian, means the club is a limited company. It is open to potentially anonymous shareholders. Dividends are paid to whoever holds share certificates. With this, sadly there’s further potential for unregistered share ownership and dividend collection to enable tax evasion, money laundering and concealed transactions. Who knows what’s going on. However, let’s try not to smudge the rose tinted glasses further and end a hopefully interesting story. 

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