Rangers’ Ianis Hagi Next in Line for Bumpy Ride in Football’s Junior League
My father was a lawyer and, in my childhood imagination and so far as I can ascertain also in fact, quite a good one. From time to time, as I blundered towards adulthood with no obvious idea what to do when I got there, he would encourage me towards the law, a vocation he always found intellectually stimulating and also, serendipitously, financially rewarding. In this endeavor, alas, he had no success. Why, I reasoned, would I voluntarily enter a profession in which I would be doomed to be forever compared unfavorably with an overachieving parent? With this same logic in mind, I have meticulously avoided closing off journalism as a potential career path for my own children.
In many professions when a familiar surname rises towards the top it is put down, often accurately, to nepotism. But if watching people surf to success on the shoulders of mum and dad can be dispiriting, in sport my experience is that second-generation achievement elicits a much more uplifting response.
Ianis Hagi’s debut goal for Rangers last week was a case in point, a sweet strike in several ways. It was a moment that brought back memories of his father, of the summer of 1994 when Gheorghe Hagi illuminated a World Cup that was in turns magnificent and mundane, and also admiration that this 21-year-old footballer has not been hobbled by the weight of the four letters that during matches he literally carries on his shoulders.
Ianis’s rise has not been unassisted, coming as he did through his father’s football academy in Romania before making his league debut in 2014, as a mere 16-year-old, for a Viitorul Constanta team coached at the time by his father. “I am well aware how hard I will have to work to get to the top,” he said at the time. “I am so proud of my father but I have to make my own way in life.”
It is worth remembering that Hagi Jr. also scored a late winner on his debut for Genk, the club he joined from Viitorul last summer and that within six months were happy to let him leave again. It remains to be seen whether his own way in life will be more Paolo Maldini than Stefan Beckenbauer. This after all is a path that has been trodden my many, often without great success.
Stanley Matthews’ son, also Stanley, was to become a more than decent tennis player, winning the Wimbledon boys’ title in 1962, but only after feeling forced out of football. “I stopped playing when I was 12,” he told the Guardian in 2007. “I was fairly good but whoever I played, they kicked the shit out of me. I came with a name and the mentality was: ‘We’re going to get Stanley Matthews’ son.’ Sure, being Dad’s son opened some doors but it also made things harder. Unfortunately that’s how it is.”
There will always be curiosity over the child of a once great player and their first challenge is to establish themselves as something other than a freakshow exhibit. In 2001 Diego Maradona’s son, also Diego, was called up to Italy’s under-17s and played a friendly against the senior team. “As a Neapolitan it gives me shivers to see a Maradona on the pitch,” said Fabio Cannavaro to the throng of journalists who had come to a vaguely glorified training session to see the prodigy, “but if that was my son I wouldn’t want him getting all this attention.” Maradona Jr. was 14 at the time, a child among young men. “I wouldn’t change my surname for anything in the world, because it fills me with pride,” little Diego said. “God willing, one day I’ll be out there with the senior squad.” Little Diego is now 33 and it seems God was not willing.
A decade later crowds gathered at a field in Curitiba, Brazil, after word leaked that Pelé’s 10-year-old grandson Gabriel was playing there with his club, Paraná. He and his elder brother, Octavio, soon joined São Paulo’s youth system, their parentage enough to get them a place without the inconvenience of a trial. “Just being Pelé’s grandson won’t be enough to make me a professional footballer,” said Gabriel. “It doesn’t work like that. We have to work, too. Of course his name helps but we want to become professionals on our own merit.” Neither, it turned out, had great merit.
Pelé’s sons Joshua and Edinho both played for Santos, their father’s old club; the former left football at 18 without a senior appearance but Edinho did play in goal for the first team and now works for their academy. He has benefited and also suffered from his association with Brazil’s greatest ever player: in 2017 he was appointed manager of Tricordiano, a small team from Três Corações, midway between São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. “Edinho is a big marketing tool for us,” their commercial manager said. “It could make us more well-known because of that name and we’ve got Pelé as honorary chairman now, too.” The benefit did not last long. Edinho was sacked after two games.
The concept of Edinho the marketing tool is a strange one to grasp. It seems clear to me that the child of a great player can engender a pleasant if temporary nostalgic glow but not that they are, in and of themselves and regardless of their achievements, even remotely interesting. Gabriel and Octavio both reported that during their childhoods in the Xaxim neighborhood of Curitiba they were often asked for their autographs, the juvenile scrawls of people notable at that stage of their lives only for the portion of their DNA that they share with someone else.
Some people clearly believe that being the offspring of a famous footballer is on its own enough to make someone appealing. In 1944 an anonymous sailor, serving on a motor torpedo boat, had a letter published in several newspapers. “I am 26, the son of a famous and well-known footballer,” it read. “I am a lonely, handsome sailor, almost a teetotaller. Please can you find me pen pals, with a view to matrimony. Photos will be welcomed.” It is sadly impossible to ascertain how many people were enticed by this pitch.
Ianis Hagi’s journey is one I will admire but never covet, though of course it is the only reality he will ever know. Paul Dalglish, Kenny’s son and itinerant striker, was once asked if his surname had proved a help or a hindrance. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I haven’t had any other name.”
The Guardian Sport