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WORLD CUP USA ’94 / THE FIRST ROUND : Hagi: A Romanian Version of Gretzky : Group A: Soccer star sparks his team just like the hockey player, only with a few more rough edges.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Saturday at the Rose Bowl, he was the Gretzky of Romania. Actually, for the last 10 years, he has been the Gretzky of Romania.

His name is Gheorghe Hagi and his position is star midfielder for the Romanian soccer team that, on this bright and sunny afternoon, shocked Colombia and the rest of the soccer world with a convincing 3-1 win over the flashier and more highly touted South American team.

In soccer circles, Hagi is compared with Maradona, but his value to his team Saturday, in the first World Cup game ever played in Southern California, is better understood to American fans in a Gretzky image. Like a simple line in an NHL boxscore, Hagi scored one goal and set up the other two; a Gretzky three-point night in a 3-1 win.

Scoring the first and third goals of the game for the Romanians was forward Florin Raducioiu, who described his feats as follows:

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“On the second goal, I took a long pass from Hagi and kicked it in. Just like on the first goal.”

Like the Kings’ Gretzky, Hagi holds the position of team captain. He has been so for the last 10 years.

But there, perhaps, the comparisons with Gretzky end. There is no Lady Byng Trophy in Hagi’s future.

He is a wiry little guy, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound firecracker ready to explode. He has been given a red card and thrown out of a game for spitting at an opponent, along with the usual unsportsmanlike behavior. Romanian Mircea Lucescu, who coaches him on the Brescia Italian Club, says he has a poor work ethic. But that didn’t seem to matter to Real Madrid, which once paid $3.5 million for him.

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He is restless and compulsive, both on and off the field. The eventual game-winning goal was a 40-yarder, from the left wing that Hagi runs so well, that simply took advantage of a small opening and a lax moment by Colombia goalie Oscar Cordoba. The ball, struck by Hagi’s left foot, skied and dipped quickly, whistling past the outstretched Cordoba just inside the far post and into the upper corner of the net. It was a situation where most other players would have looked to dribble closer, or make one more crossing pass. Hagi just fired away.

But, as is typical of this high-profile player, he also drew some criticism from soccer observers by going off for a leg injury and, while returning a minute or so later, leaving his team a man short for that period of time.

Afterward, when called to a press conference in a format soccer players seldom are subjected to--stand up on a platform, have some soccer official who has just completed a course in non-essential, non-confrontational questioning ask you some and then stand around while the vanilla questions are translated a couple of times--Hagi tried to hurry the process along by skipping the translation. “I can proceed,” he said, in perfect English.

When the officials got him slowed down and adhering to their procedures, Hagi quickly claimed there was nothing wrong with his leg. Eventually, he was pulled from the platform by team officials, who were telling him he needed to ice the injury immediately, but he stopped for at least 10 more minutes of questions from the Romanian press.

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If Hagi were a basketball player, he’d be Charles Barkley.

And whether or not he would want to be a role model, he has been the soccer hero in his country for 10 years and has been in the spotlight of so much that is memorable for Romanians in his sport. He is closing in on his country’s all-time scoring record for international competition, now held by Ladislau Boloni, and he scored his team’s first goal on Nov. 17 of last year in a 2-1 win over Wales that put Romania in this World Cup.

One of his few bad times for Hagi was when he failed to score in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. But Saturday, before a crowd of 91,856 that was clearly there in the majority to see the fancy footwork of Colombia dazzle and defeat Romania, Hagi took care of his personal World Cup drought.

And when he said afterward, “I am happy because this is where we wanted to be,” he probably spoke as much for himself as his team.

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