It is not often that a player lines up against a club in which his family holds shares, but that’s what happened in central Italy in May 2004 when Al-Saadi Gaddafi, son of then-Libyan leader Muammar, came off the bench for Perugia in a vital Serie A game with Juventus, making his debut nine months after signing for the club. It was just part of an extraordinary story of an extremely odd relationship between an authoritarian dictator and a foreign country’s football.
Libya and Italy have been linked ever since 1911, when the Italians seized the important coastal zones of Tripolitania and Cyrenacia and made Libya its first ever colony. Their areas of influence gradually expanded as the years went by, a process that was accelerated when Benito Mussolini, head of the National Fascist Party, became Italian Prime Minister in 1922.
Mussolini was determined to secure as much of Libya as possible as part of his comprehensive mission to make Italy one of the great imperial forces around the world and, unsurprisingly, was willing to use violent means to overcome any native resistance. Indeed, oppression intensified upon Mussolini’s accession to power, and Arab historians estimate that at least 80,000 Libyans died from either the fighting, disease or starvation.
Nevertheless, Libya’s economy flourished under Italian rule, and the country arguably benefited from the improved infrastructure that was put in place. Libya, too, became a favoured destination for Italian emigrants – who numbered almost 110,000 in 1939, about twelve per cent of the population – and their business and agricultural expertise contributed to the state’s significant economic development.
Libya declared its constitutional independence in 1951, eight years after Allied troops had driven out their Italian counterparts and, when Gaddafi assumed control in 1969, the 20,000 Italian expats that remained were expelled. Gaddafi’s stance towards his nation’s former colonisers softened as time went on, however, and it is no coincidence that Italy was chosen in 2003 as the place where Al-Saadi Gaddafi would continue his footballing career.
Saadi adored the game from a young age, and had already played a combined 98 matches for Tripoli’s biggest clubs, Alahly and Al-Ittihad, when he arrived in Perugia in the summer of 2003.
Back in Libya – where he was also captain of the national team – 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 to prevent any challenge to his cult of personality.
Saadi knew that he could not expect such favouritism in Italy, yet the fact that he was even signed by a top-flight club in a major European league was already evidence of special treatment. Indeed, on footballing ability alone, Al-Saadi Gaddafi was some way short of the requisite level.
Luciano Gaucci, Perugia’s colourful president, was never one to shy away from controversy, but the signing of Saadi was more than just a mischievous PR stunt. Instead, the orders came right from the top, with Milan owner and then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi encouraging Gaucci to go through with the deal for the good of the country, telling the then 64 year-old businessman that “having[Saadi] in the team is helping us build a relationship with Libya. If he plays badly…so be it.”
Such a rapport was sought by Berlusconi for two simple reasons: money and oil. Libyan oil was integral to many Italian businesses, and Berlusconi knew that keeping Gaddafi sweet would ensure Italy had access to the very best deals. Gaddafi himself spent about €17 million on seven per cent of shares in Juventus in 2002; not only are the Bianconeri Italy’s biggest and most globally visible club, they are majority-owned by FIAT, the Turin-based automotive company that imports countless litres of oil every year.
In 2008, this trading connection between Italy and Libya was formalised when the two countries signed a historic cooperation treaty in Benghazi which committed €4 billion worth of compensation to Libya for the Italian occupation of the previous century in exchange for an increase in Libyan investment in Italian companies.
Football was again entangled in wider political and economic issues as UniCredit, a major Italian bank partly owned by Libya, purchased shares in AS Roma, while Gaddafi was also keen to increase his personal stake in Juventus to twenty per cent.
Perugia’s offer of a playing contract to Al-Saadi Gaddafi is thus more comprehensible within this wider context, but the Grifoni’s manager Serse Cosmi was not as keen on the move as his chairman; Gaucci, perhaps with his business hat on, recognised the potential benefits of getting on Berlusconi’s good side, but Cosmi refused to include Gaddafi in his matchday squads for the first three months
When he was finally selected on the substitute’s bench, a routine post-match drugs test revealed traces of the illegal substance Nandrolone and saw the striker banned until January. Saadi would have to wait until May for his first taste of action, when Cosmi finally relented and sent him on as a second-half replacement for Jay Bothroyd with Perugia leading Juventus 1-0.
“[He entered] the pitch one minute after dismissal of [Ciro] Ferrara [the Juventus centre-back]”, noted Gazzetta Dello Sport the following day, “effectively restoring numerical parity”.
Perugia held on to secure an important three points in their quest to avoid relegation, but Saadi’s fifteen minutes were memorable for entirely the wrong reasons. Even in such a small space of time, he was noticeably off the pace, and Cosmi must have been hugely relieved that the gamble had not cost his team.Al-Saadi Gaddafi had Diego Maradona and Ben Johnson employed as technical consultant and personal trainer respectively, but he was still clearly far from good enough for Serie A.
That small matter did not prevent him from representing two other teams on the peninsula, though. In 2005-06, Saadi played eleven minutes for Udinese – then managed by Cosmi – in their top-flight encounter with Cagliari, even managing a shot on target late on. He then joined Sampdoria in Italy’s northwest, but did not wear the club’s famous hooped shirts for even a single minute.
Saadi would later be voted the worst player to ever participate in the Italian top-flight, a label he vehemently contested. The Libyan’s delusions of grandeur were probably brought about by his family’s then unassailable position back home, but his enduring self-confidence nevertheless remains hard to believe.
“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.”
It would be easy to look back at the events today and laugh were it not for the fact that Saadi’s football adventure was largely bankrolled by Libyan state funds. In Perugia, Saadi frequented only the most exclusive hotels, on one occasion booking an entire floor for himself, his six bodyguards and his pet dog, Dina. The dog was reported to be served prime cuts of steak and to sleep on a bed. The dog handler had to sleep on the floor. Further problems emerged when the hotel ran out of milk after Saadi’s wife insisted on bathing in it. A private jet escorted him around the country and abroad, while six Mercedes’ and a limousine were available for shorter-distance journeys.
Bothroyd, the English striker who spent two seasons in Italy with Perugia, speaks of a “friendly and polite” man who became a friend, but while Saadi’s insistence on paying for Bothroyd’s honeymoon was understandably welcomed by the former Arsenal man, it was likely more difficult to stomach for the hundreds of thousands of Libyans living in squalid conditions below the poverty line back home.
Colonel Gaddafi’s shares in Juventus were frozen along with his other assets by the EU in the spring of 2011, and it was recently announced that Roma’s owner James Pallotta had agreed a deal to buy out UniCredit’s stake in the Giallorossi.
Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 and Saadi was arrested in Niger in March last year, while the incessant fighting in Libya makes the development of any similarly dubious links between the country and calcio in the near future very difficult to envisage.
It is likely to be a very long time indeed until a worse footballer than Al-Saadi Gaddafi is employed by multiple clubs in one of Europe’s top divisions. As John Foot writes in his history of the game on the peninsula, the episode says a lot about “the corruption of Italian football, the power of Libyan money and the farcical nature of Serie A”. It is also yet another example – if one was needed – of the dangers of mixing sport with politics.
You can follow Greg Lea on Twitter (@GregLeaFootball)