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The journey to the top is a hard one for most footballers with talent often backup up by countless hours of hard work and sacrifice. However, when it comes to Saadi Gaddafi the ascension is hardly orthodox. Oliver McManus has a look at the football career of the son of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
The story of Saadi Gaddafi is one which many people will not have heard of and yet is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of world football – a story with so many political and contextual backdrops and so much mystery surrounding it.
The man himself played a mere two times in the Italian top flight and, yet, he goes down in Serie A folklore – his story being told in equal volume to such legends as Maradona, Maldini, Zanetti, Piola and their ilk. Venture outside of Italy and, people will recognize the Gaddafi name but, other than that, will draw a blank.
So, I took it upon myself to find out more about the mystery man that, editor of this very website, Sami recalls his father telling him about it as a youngster.
Born in 1973, in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Saddi Gadaffi was the son of the country’s notorious dictator Muammar Gadaffi; the third of ten children, his early childhood was frantic, to say the least, with political controversy engulfing his whole family and country.
Saadi, however, knew from an early age what he loved most and that was the sport of football. Showing no interest into the succession of his father’s dictatorship or, indeed, politics at all, he set out to forge his own path in the world of professional football with seemingly little regard for his level of ability.
Starting his career in his native country, Gaddafi made his debut at the, not-so-tender, age of 27 for one of Libya’s biggest clubs – Alahly Tripolli. He lasted a year at the club, who would later become the first to win a League after his father was killed in the autumn of 2011, where he won the first silverware of his career – the Libyan Cup.
Not that his performances were of an outstanding quality, he secured a move to city rivals Al-Ittihad Tripoli for the start of the 2001 season where, it must be said, he played a key part in the team, scoring 20 goals in his 74 appearances, winning 2 Libyan Premier League titles, 2 Libyan Super Cup titles and reaching the final of 2 editions of the Libyan Cup.
I can already tell what you’re thinking to yourself, you’re thinking that, actually, this guy doesn’t seem like too bad a player – he has some ability – and, whilst the statistics on paper certainly serve to give that impression, the commonly untold story is that the model of Libyan football at the time was designed so that Saadi’s performances would prosper and prove pivotal to the fortunes of his clubs. With tactics set to suit the man, a national call up was essentially secured (oh, and the fact his dad was ruler of the country helped ever so slightly!) and his sights were soon to be set further than the shores of his native land.
In 2003, he set upon his second foray into foreign football; his first adventure had been cut short before it even began with a proposed move to Maltese champions Birkirkara failing to materialise, three years previously. So, where would he start his career in Europe, presumably a ‘stepping-stone club’, maybe in the Balkans, or perhaps Greece, Switzerland, or Austria? Given that he would be vastly out of depth in any of these leagues, his ‘big break’ would come as a surprise to many. (But, probably not to you, because it’s been alluded to earlier in the article).
To sign someone of Gaddafi’s stature and standing, you need to be of equal delusion and grandeur to be able to convince, firstly, yourself and, then, the rest of the footballing world that the signing was for the good of the club. And, thankfully for Saadi, chairman of Perugia at the time, Luciano Gaucci, was that controversial figure who would take a chance on him.
Having already become a household name in Italy, synonymous with trouble, his most famous moment came when he once threatened to release South Korean star Ahn Jung-hwan after he scored the goal that eliminated Italy in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Well, for legal reasons, it has to be said that was only the “alleged” reason. So, naturally, you’d make allowances for his eccentricities before raising your eyebrows – and that’s exactly what people tried to do.
As could be expected though, many suspected there was more to this signing than met the eye – a political motive, perhaps? It is undeniable that, by opting to ply his trade in Italy he appeased his father who had substantial business interests in the country and, perhaps more importantly for the career of Saadi, many, many connections at the top of Italian society.
Questions were, understandably, asked, with people wondering if the, equally controversial, Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi was behind the deal in a bid to boost the prospect of trade deals between the two nations.
These allegations were rebuffed by the son of Luciano, insisting that it was all for the good of the club and that Gaucci was of the opinion that “when people were talking about what he was doing… when people were talking about Perguia, it pleased him”.
Of course, you don’t believe a word Gaucci has to say about the transfer and you’d be right not to. Berlusconi, then Milan owner, was the voice in the ear of Gaucci encouraging him to pursue the move, saying, and I quote “having Saadi in the team is helping us build a relationship with Libya. If he plays badly… so be it.”
After all of this controversy before the signing, you could be forgiven for wondering how the Perugia public would react to the striker, who would team up with one-cap-wonder Jay Bothroyd, yet, despite the uncertainty, hundreds attended his official reveal – taking place in a resplendent castle owned by the Guaccis- as well as media from the world around.
Per the BBC, Saadi made several, relatively unbelievable remarks at the press conference, claiming “in Africa, we play games that are maybe even tougher than the ones in Italy” – not exactly a modest man then, to say the least.
A media frenzy surrounded the move, with film crews from his native Libya, as well as much of the Middle East turning up to Perugia training sessions every day, without fail, just to get a glimpse of Umbrian clubs new ‘star’.
Former team-mate of Saadi, Emanuele Berrettoni, recalls the flair with which he would flaunt his wealth and celebrity whilst at the club – specifically a tail of when the Libya national team captain had a minor earache and “called up the best doctor in Italy… took a helicopter and flew to Milan”.
Talking of obscurities, if you would indulge for just a minute, I am reminded of a tale I was once told, whereby when playing football in Libya, a decree was issued by the government to ensure that Saadi would be the only player referred to by name by the commentators – all other players were to be called by their number, and their number only.
On the 2nd of May 2004, Saadi came off the bench to play 15 minutes against the long-time titans of Italian football, Juventus. His debut in Italian football was rather unspectacular, with nothing of any particular note achieved; this despite having employed both Diego Maradona and, former 100m World Record holder, Ben Johnson to improve his game. In fact, quite humorously, an article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica remarked “even at twice his current speed he would still be twice as slow as slow itself” .
Not that many of the Perugian faithful would have been hoping to see more of the Libyan, he subsequently left the club in quite shadowed conditions; eventually revealed to be failed drugs test.
So, had Gaddafi’s venture into professional football come to a close? Don’t be foolish, it had only just started! Miraculously, a move to Udinese materialised in the 2005-06 season, where his extravagance grew to another level, even as far as renting a private room for his 2 dogs. Unfortunately, for everyone involved with the deal, his footballing abilities didn’t improve by quite so much; in his grand total of 11 minutes on the field, he managed a solitary shot on target – which, to be fair, is more than he achieved whilst at Perugia.
What is somewhat incredible, however, is that of all players to have spoken on record publically about their experiences with Gaddafi is that none of them have a bad word to say – many revelling in the kind, generous man who, in all probability had no misgivings as to his ability in the game, but was just enjoying his time at the top.
Yet again, he was moved on at the end of the season, this time to northwest Italy where he was signed by Sampdoria, where he failed to notch any game time during his one year stint; he would go on to be voted as the worst ever player in the history of Serie A.
Saadi’s Italian dream was all but finished, and is if that was a kick in the teeth, more personal failures were around the corner. His father, Muammar, was killed in 2011 by the Libyan rebels and, shortly after, Saadi himself was captured in Niger and placed under house arrest as well as having an Interpol red notice issued in his name.
In March of 2014, he was extradited to Libya where he would face trial for the murder of former Libyan star striker Bashir Al-Riani. Unfortunately, that is the last we’ve heard of the man and his future is relatively uncertain, with the death penalty looming over his head.
It’s not just on the pitch that he left a trail of stink, but off it, as well. A report that emerged in 2009, alluded to scuffles with the police in Europe, the blatant abuse of drugs and alcohol as well as high profile affairs with men and women throughout his time in Italy.
Reflecting on his relationship with Saadi, Jay Bothroyd – now playing in Japan – said, fondly, “Saadi is a friend of mine, he was always friendly and polite. He even came to my wedding” He even went as far as to vouch for Saadi’s innocence with relation to the impending war crimes trial in his homeland; “all I know is, innocent people should never get hurt”
A fall from grace has never been so rapid and public as Gaddafi and, in the same respect, nor has one been so mysterious. The story has it all and the unfinished nature of it is what has hooked me throughout and, although the Guam national football team will, forever, have the number one spot in my heart, there is a new space in there for the complex, chaotic and captivating chronicle of Saadi Gaddafi.
An extraordinary story, sure to be made in to a movie one day, Saadi’s tale is a brilliant display of how far wealth can bring you, as well as the levels of corruption in that existed in the game.
All that is left to reflect on is his footballing ability, say what you will about the Gaddafi family, but let’s put that aside for a minute just to look back on the career of a man who, despite any real ability, fulfilled his dream and loved all 26 professional minutes of it.
Let me tell you of a final tale to wish you on your way; the most notable thing Saadi achieved on the football field was during an international friendly in 2003, against Canada, when, after being substituted he shook all of the opponents hands before heading off, where he proceeded to do the same with the all of the Canadian bench.
People will, inevitably, label this story as many things; sad, desperate, failed, corrupt. But, if you ask me, in a weird way, it’s a story of hope because, even though he had no talent, he pursued his dream with vehemence and ferocity until it was achieved and that is something we all should do.
Saadi can be summed up with one word, one simple word; Maverick.