The remarkable images that emerged from the revolution in Libya last month, as despotic leader Moammar Gadhafi was hunted down and executed, appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with sports.
Yet as Gadhafi’s long and brutal regime came crashing down and his life was brought to a violent end, a former professional soccer player in one of the world’s top leagues suddenly became one of the most wanted men on the planet.
The man in question is Gadhafi’s third son, Al-Saadi, who used his father’s political influence to gain contracts at three teams in Italy’s Serie A – Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria – while also training with Lazio and Juventus.
Gadhafi was a decent soccer player who played 18 times for the Libyan national team, but his abilities were nowhere near good enough to be considered for Serie A in normal circumstances. However, for nearly eight years he lived the life of a pro, traveling with the teams, seeing reserve action and very brief first-team involvement.
“He wasn’t the best,” said English forward Jay Bothroyd, who played with him at Perugia. “But he did it as a hobby. He is a billionaire but … 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.”
Currently, Gadhafi is under house arrest in the African nation of Niger, hiding out in its capital, Niamey. Interpol has issued a red notice – the closest thing to an international arrest warrant – in his name, and the new regime in Libya is anxious to apprehend him. Given the bloody end that befell his father, it is possible that any return to Libya for Al-Saadi would be his last.
Al-Saadi is charged with involvement in the hardline repressions orchestrated by his father. Niger prime minister Brigi Rafini has indicated his nation would not hand him over to international authorities.
Given his limited ability, Gadhafi’s stint in Serie A seems utterly implausible. Yet the arrangements were made thanks to the strong diplomatic ties between Italy and Libya, which was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1947. The financial links worked both ways: Italian car manufacturer Fiat is heavily invested in Libyan oil and the Gadhafi family owned as much as 7 percent of Juventus, one of Italy’s most successful clubs.
Gadhafi hired Diego Maradona as his technical consultant and Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as his fitness trainer when he joined Perugia. Gadhafi was banned after testing positive for nandrolone in 2003. After serving a suspension, he played only one competitive match for the club, but it was a vital one, with the side beating Juventus in a crucial relegation contest in 2005. He would have seen more action if not for coach Serse Cosmi’s refusal to accede to the wishes of club owner Luciano Gaucci, who wanted Gadhafi to feature regularly in the side.
Gaucci admitted that he had been told by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi that it would be politically advantageous to have Gadhafi at the club. Berlusconi, whose reign was plagued by allegations of corruption, bribery, tax evasion and even sex with a 17-year-old girl, announced Tuesday he would resign after failing to fix Italy’s debt crisis.
Gadhafi moved on to Udinese, a club currently leading Serie A, and again played only one match as a substitute in a meaningless end-of-season game against Cagliari. A final move to Sampdoria followed but this time he was restricted to training and reserve team appearances.
Despite his father being a despot, Gadhafi was regarded as a popular figure in the locker room, perhaps explained by his financial generosity. Bothroyd said Gadhafi would fly him to Cannes in the south of France to watch motor racing and paid for the player’s luxury honeymoon in Los Angeles and Hawaii.
Gadhafi was nowhere near as popular in his homeland. Libyan soccer was set up to revolve around him, so much so that his name was the only one allowed to be announced in domestic league matches where he was featured.
State funds were used to further Al-Saadi’s soccer career, prompting resentment, but any protests quickly were silenced by the tyrannical regime.
Gadhafi is not the only tyrant’s son to have used his influence on the sports world. Saddam Hussein’s son Uday was president of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and was famous for torturing underperforming national team soccer players with electric cables following international defeats.
Uday Hussein faced life on the run until a U.S.-led Task Force killed him in a shootout in 2003. Al-Saadi Gadhafi’s future also is bleak, his playboy lifestyle rubbing shoulders with some of Europe’s best soccer players well and truly over.