Ask any football fan around the world who the best player produced by their country has ever been and the answer will invariably be skewed by the age of the person you’re asking. Fans gravitate instinctively towards players from their formative years, the generation in which they first fully embraced the game and its culture, and tend to favour players from this period over comparable ones from other generations.
Take Romania for example, any football fan under the age of 35 will categorically state that Gheorghe Hagi is without doubt their country’s best player, whereas those of a slightly older persuasion might be more ready to demur and offer up the name of Nicolae Dobrin as an alternative.
Dobrin is a player little-known in the west simply because of the political restrictions which defined the age in which he played. Hagi was fortunate to emerge as a player around the time of the Romanian revolution which brought down the hated Ceaucescu regime. The liberalisation that followed allowed him to realise his huge potential by moving abroad and enjoy a stellar career in the west, a luxury never afforded to Dobrin – despite the efforts clubs like Real Madrid made to sign him anyway.
Dobrin and Hagi were both skilled and creative players with a penchant for attracting controversy. Hagi played the further forward of the two, typically as a No.10 or wide on the left of an attack, whereas Dobrin was a central midfielder who pushed forward to support conventional attacking teammates. Both were renown for their mastery of the ball, dribbling skill and a certain swagger about their play – the pair knew they were brilliant players and were never shy in grandstanding to the terraces.
Dobrin made his debut at the age of just 14 for Arges (then called Dinamo), the main club from his home city of Pitesti in the south of the country. His unusual maturity and tactical sense suggested a player much more experienced than the callow youth he still was and by the age of 18 he was a mainstay in midfield for his club and the Romanian national team.
His debut for his country came against West Germany in Ludwigshafen not long after the 1966 World Cup. So impressed were watching scouts with his performance that six Bundesliga clubs attempted to offer him a contract on the spot.
That same season he was voted Romania’s Footballer of the Year, an award he would retain the following season and win again in 1972 when he inspired unfashionable Arges to a first Romanian title. Dobrin provided the inspiration from the middle of the park, Doru Nicolae the promptings from the wing and Radu the goals at centre-forward in this much revered side.
The following season Arges drew mighty Real Madrid in the European Cup and gave the Spanish side a mighty scare before suffering a narrow elimination. Dobrin scored in Spain and was the outstanding player on view over the two legs, so impressing the watching Santiago Bernabéu that he moved mountains in a determined attempt to sign him. Negotiations took place with Romanian president Ceaucescu himself but came to nothing with the regime realising Dobrin was too important a propaganda asset to sell.
His national team proved little better than competent yet uninspired when he wasn’t on the pitch. An example of the difference he made came in a late 60s Nations Cup fixture against Italy in Naples. The Romanians were outclassed and yet Dobrin was considered by all and sundry to be the very best player on the pitch, even outwitting the daunting figure of Giacinto Facchetti on several occasions.
Dobrin’s international days proved to be ultimately underwhelming when compared to his successes at club level. He scored the decisive qualifying goal against Portugal that took Romania to the 1970 World Cup with a mazy dribble and flashing shot, yet while he was named in the squad for the tournament proper, he didn’t see any action in Mexico. Rumours suggested it was punishment for one of the many bouts of indiscipline that plagued his career, another trait he had in common with his modern counterpart Hagi.
Nearing 33 years of age and still the best player in the country, Dobrin inspired Arges to a second title in 1979, scoring the decisive extra-time winner with a brilliant individual goal to defeat Dinamo. Only him and Ivan remained from the 1972 title-winning team.
Dobrin’s entire career was spent with Arges apart from a single season near its end. He moved into coaching and had three spells in charge of his beloved Arges before retiring in 2001. Nicolae Dobrin sadly passed away six years later after losing a battle with lung cancer.