In recent years, African football competitions have been dominated by North Africans. The accomplishments of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan teams (both club and country) are well known by African football fans, and have unfortunately instigated a divide between football fans on both sides of the Sahara due to the quality and financial advantage that North African teams have.
Of the African countries that face the Mediterranean Sea, all but one have a rich footballing history and a fruitful future. The exception is Libya. Under Italian and then allied colonial rule until the mid 20th century, the oil-rich desert nation is most popularly known for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the man who led Libya for 42 years until his assassination in 2011. While Gaddafi, and his family, was known for his tight control of Libya – politically and socially, their influence extended into football – with Muammar and his sons playing a big role on Libyan football, both on and off the pitch.
The most important actor connecting Libyan football and the Gaddafi regime is Al-Saadi Gaddafi, the third son of Muammar. Reading his Wikipedia page will entertain you more than it does inform. His introductory paragraph includes mentions of murder, torture, war, and most amusingly, him being a “former association football player”.
Click through the slide show to learn more about Saadi’s story as a footballer.
Early Playing Days – Libya
Saadi began his playing career – aged 27! – at Al Ahly Tripoli, where he reportedly played for the 1990/91 season. The next season, he moved to Tripoli rivals Al-Ittihad, where – on paper – he was a key contributor to the club’s success.
There are no reputable statistics on Saadi’s playing days in the Libyan league, but varying records state he scored between 20 and 166 goals for Ittihad. Additionally, he was the league’s top scorer in the 2001/02 season – netting 19 times.
With Ittihad, he won two Libyan Premier League titles. This is not as much of an achievement when you learn that Saadi was the president of Libya’s football federation.
Father & Son
While the timeline of his playing allegiances is unclear, it is obvious that Saadi and his father had it out for Al Ahly Benghazi, a rival club from a city that has long had resentment for Gaddafi.
It was evident that the Gaddafis influenced the Libyan league in Saadi’s favor. Saadi used his wallet to lure several Benghazi players to Tripoli, in addition to rigging rigging games in Al Ahly Tripoli’s favor by bribing or coercing match officials.
During the 1999/2000 season, when Benghazi were facing relegation, they appeared to be on the wrong side of numerous refereeing decisions. “So blatantly wrong were the two penalties and offside goal awarded to Saadi’s team in a match against Al-Ahly that the Benghazi players stormed off the field,” a Guardian profile on Saadi wrote.
When Benghazi fans invaded the pitch and forced their last match of the season to be abandoned after a dubious penalty call, protests erupted in Benghazi (a city that has long voiced their opposition to the Gaddafi regime) – forcing a response from Saadi’s father.
Muammar had Al-Ahly’s stadium bulldozed and the club was both relegated and banned indefinitely from the league, halting the growth of one of Africa’s fastest-growing clubs at the turn of the millennium: a time when football really began to boom financially around the world.
Saadi both running and being a player within the Libyan Football Federation generated some amusing headlines.
He paid the Argentina FA for their national team to play an April 2003 friendly in Tripoli. He captained the Libyan national team in that match, although they succumbed to the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Fabricio Collocini.
When Canada came to Tripoli that same year to take on Libya, Saadi created a hilarious scene when he was substituted out after Canada went up 3-1. He insisted on shaking hands with every single Canadian player on the field, and then went on to shake the hands of the entire Canadian bench — making for what might be the world’s longest substitution (watch what he does to a Libyan cop at 2:53):
When he played in the Libyan Premier League, Saadi was the only player to have his name on the back of his shirt, and football commentators would refer to his team-mates and opposition by their squad numbers.
Saadi was especially fond of the Italian game. He was known to have trained with Paul Gascoigne and Lazio in the 1990s, and more recently with Italian giants Juventus. In 2002, he negotiated his family’s purchase of a 5.3 percent stake in Juventus. He was also instrumental in organizing the hosting of the Italian Supercoppa in Tripoli later that year.
A year later, to the bemusement of many, Saadi Gaddafi – the son of one of the world’s most notorious dictators – signed for Serie A side Perugia. Luciano Gaucci, Perugia’s owner, was no stranger to controversy. That past summer, Gaucci threatened to fire South Korean forward Ahn Jung-Hwan, the scorer of the goal that eliminated Italy from the 2002 World Cup.
It was clear as day that the signing of Gaddafi was not a footballing move, but a symbolic transaction between Libya and Italy. It is commonly believed that former AC Milan owner and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi persuaded Gaucci to complete the move so Gaddafi Sr. would act with favor towards Italy in the future.
Things went south at his introduction when the press conference was derailed by numerous political questions regarding the influx of Libyan migrants into Italy.
Knowing that he would not get the same treatment in Italy that he received back home, Gaddafi Jr. enlisted the help of some big names to train him. He hired Diego Maradona as a technical consultant and the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as his personal trainer.
Gaucci pleaded to manager Serse Cosmi, but he refused to include Gaddafi in his matchday squads for the first three months. When Saadi finally made the substitute’s bench, a routine post-match drug test revealed traces of the illegal substance Nandrolone (which he supposedly used for a back injury), and was banned until January.
Saadi would have to wait until the end of the season in May for his first taste of action, when Cosmi finally relented and gave him 15 minutes to play with Perugia leading 10-men Juventus 1-0.
Gazzetta dello Sport joked that Saadi’s poor showing “effectively restored numerical parity.” He touched the ball a few times and briefly required treatment after a challenge from Pavel Nedved. He was stricken by appendicitis almost immediately after the match, a testament to his poor fitness levels.
Apparently there was a clause in Saadi’s contract that required Perugia to give him at least one appearance. What better game than a match with no effect on the standings against the team that his family owns to make his debut in European football?
Perugia were relegated to Serie B. Saadi stayed with the club, but failed to make a single appearance the next season. Somehow, he managed a transfer to Udinese. The Zebrette had just appointed Cosmi as their new manager, and were also qualified to play in the Champions League.
With this miraculous transfer, the son of Gadaffi went from a bench warmer at a second division side to a fringe player at a Champions League side.
The 32-year-old didn’t have a movie-like run to first team glory like he might have hoped, although he did make a token appearance off the bench at the end of the season. This time his performance improved, recording eight passes, one shot, and two tackles.
Gadaffi’s final move in Italy saw him sign with Sampdoria for a season (no appearances) before hanging up his boots. That year he played the last of his 18 officially recorded games for the Libyan national team.
Saadi’s time in Italy was as much a show of Italian corruption as it was the sway of the Gaddafi family. In four years in Italian football, he managed a mere 27 minutes of play and would later be voted the worst player to ever participate in the Italian top-flight.
Off the Field
Bright as day that he wasn’t the best on the field, anecdotes about him off the field offer an alternative view to the dictator’s son.
Given his upbringing, he was generally a confident man.
“For me it would be easier to find a spot at Juventus than at Perugia”, Saadi once replied to an interviewer’s question of whether he still hoped to play for the Bianconeri, the club he had supported from childhood. “My technical attributes are best brought out by playing with world-class players.”
He flashed the cash when he came to Perugia, frequenting only the most exclusive hotels and stores. He drove a yellow Lamborghini to practice, and was accompanied everywhere he went by a squadron of bodyguards. Numerous teammates have told stories about using his private jet to traverse Italy and going on lavish nights out. In July 2010, Gaddafi was ordered by an Italian court to pay €392,000 to a luxurious hotel for an unpaid bill dating back to a month-long stay in the summer of 2007.
On the other hand, he was always described as humble and kind by those who met him. “He was always friendly and polite. When he bought his house in Hampstead he asked me what I thought of it. He even came to my wedding.” Perugia teammate Jay Bothroyd said.
Although those memories of him would be forgotten for his role in Libyan Civil War years later…
In 2011, four years after his playing days were over, his country was at war. He was now the commander of Libya’s Special Forces (a formidable step up from leading the football federation). He unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with U.S. and NATO authorities, before fleeing to Niger weeks later when he noticed things were getting worse.
Despite having an Interpol warrant, he stayed in Niger for three years before he was extradited back to Libya. He was charged with unlawful imprisonment and murder for the 2005 killing of football player Bashir al-Riani, which dates back to his time in Italy.
A video of him being tortured in a Libyan prison received international attention, and in 2018, a Libyan appeals court cleared him of the murder case.
You must be wondering, how good (or bad) was Saadi? I’ll finish this article by leaving some quotes about his skill.
“He wasn’t the best,” Bothroyd said. “But he did it as a hobby. He’s a billionaire but it was something he wanted to do. He wanted to play football, to come in every day and train. And he did it, to be fair. He never expected any special treatment. But obviously there were his bodyguards around.”
“Saadi had a sense of how football works,” Udinese captain Valerio Bertotto said. “If he had the ball on his own and he wanted to play a nice long pass, he could do that.
“But physically, he did not have the structure to play football. He did not have the strength. He did not have great endurance. He was not fast. If you lack the physical qualities to be a footballer, then you cannot be a footballer. So no, he was no footballer. He was a fan who got an opportunity to be a footballer for a moment, but he was not a footballer truly.”