The Dictator’s Son: Taking a look back at the bizarre, questionable footballing career of Al-Saadi Gaddafi

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #16

For almost every football fan not born with the ability to grace professional football, there still exists the dream of one day representing their boyhood club by some strange, unexpected circumstance. Regardless of the lack of necessary footballing talent, we all still dream of being given the chance to pull on that hallowed shirt and scoring the goal that rights our name into the annals of club history.

Yet, it remains just that: a dream. An unrealistic hope that won’t ever be realised. Some fans rationalise it with ‘what if’ scenarios that have hamstrung their football career – the childhood injury that cost them their Premier League future. Others simply accept their inability to play at the necessary standard for professional football.

And then there exists a rare, questionable third category. These are the individuals born into such wealth or privilege that they can circumvent the lack of ability.

Now, that may well seem like a situation that simply wouldn’t fly in the world of modern football. After all, how could clubs in this day and age agree to such morally dubious signings?

Well, you don’t have to look too far back to witness this exact situation. And not just in some poor footballing nation – in the European footballing giant of Italy.

The player in question: Al-Saadi Gaddafi. A Libyan forward who, if looking at his domestic statistics, certainly justified his move to the European continent.

Netting an impressive 166 league goals in 336 appearances for Libyan top-flight side Al-Ittihad Tripoli, Al-Saadi seemed to be a very competent forward. He won the division’s Player of the Year award three times. He was also capped by his country’s national team on two occasions.

So, how one might ask, did he manage just two partial appearances during his time in Italy, and have Italian publication la Repubblica print that “even at twice his current speed he would still be twice as slow as slow itself?”

Quite simply, in fact. And it comes down to who Al-Saadi Gaddafi was, and who his family was.

Al-Saadi was the third son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Tripoli-born forward hosted impressive statistics in the Libyan top division, but that was little to do with any actual sporting ability. Instead, the influence and power his father’s iron rule ensured Al-Saadi’s success.

It’s not particularly hard to shine as the best player on the pitch when the other 21 footballers involved are not allowed to outperform you, for fear of reprisal or violence. During Al-Saadi’s time playing domestically, there were widespread allegations of referees favouring the dictator’s son’s club Al-Ittihad and security forces silencing any protesting voices.

Rules were introduced to ensure that only Al-Saadi garnered the spotlight, including at one stage announcements of the names of any football player, with the exception of Gaddafi, being strictly prohibited.

However, presumably, Al-Saadi got bored of ‘dominating’ his fellow Libyan footballers each week, and sought footballing pastures somewhat more competitive. European football is largely seen as a pinnacle of football, and in the likely rose-tinted eyes of Al-Saadi, he was ready to grace it with his sublime footballing ability – even though it meant a move away from his father’s unrelenting influence against his opponents.

In 2003, Gaddafi signed for Italian Serie A side Perugia. Presumably, they had never actually seen him play. Keen to blossom into a burgeoning footballing talent on the continent, however, Al-Saadi employed a technical consultant – the legendary Argentinian star Diego Maradona – and a personal trainer with equal pedigree in Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. Neither made little impact in honing the son of Libya’s dictator into a footballing specimen.

He would make just one appearance for Perugia, from the bench, before failing a drugs test.

His athleticism was in particular raised as a damning inability the player suffered from. Despite this, and presumably through more influence of who he was, rather than how good he was as a footballer, he signed for UEFA Champions League qualifiers Udinese in the 2005/06 season.

Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t a success at Udinese either. Gaddafi managed just 10 minutes of an endof-season league match against Cagliari.

His Italian adventure would come to an end after signing with Sampdoria the following season, and failing to make a single appearance.

The Libyan Civil War in 2011 saw the Gaddafi family reign ended after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power. Al-Saadi initially fled the country, before being arrested and extradited from Niger in 2014. He was cleared of murder charges against him in 2018, and since his fate and current whereabouts are largely a mystery, unsurprisingly keeping a low profile.

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