Al-Saadi Gaddafi was travelling around Benghazi searching for a solution. National violence had gripped the country for a month: his father’s rule was on the brink of collapsing. The Arab Spring was turning into an existential threat for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in February and March 2011. The third child to the country’s dictator needed to find a way for peace to be ensured or else a long civil war would be endured.
According to his bodyguard, Al-Saadi went from hospital to hospital, orphanage to orphanage, attempting to reconcile his father’s past failures. He was allegedly acting as the humanitarian conduit in a terrorised society. Gaddafi’s four-decade-long regime had turned from early nationalistic optimism to deep corruption, international isolationism and state violence.
His journey took him to a Benghazi barracks. The reason for is visitation is unknown, but the timing could not be worst. Unarmed protesters outside the barracks were gathering. Al-Saadi had limited knowledge of military tactics or international law, despite being given the rank ‘colonel’.
Colonel Al-Saadi could feel the vibrating tension building. More people were joining the anti-regime demonstrators. Greater demand for change was being called for. Normally such a violation would lead to the rebels being thrown into Abu Salim prison – never to see the outside world again. Though this was different. The Arab Spring had already seen dictators topple across the Middle East. Change was on the horizon.
Shots were fired. Panic was everywhere. Then everything stopped. Over 200 civilians had been killed in a matter of minutes.
BBC journalist and Dictatorland author Paul Kenyon reported that Colonel Al-Saadi ordered the soldiers to fire at the protesters, even with anti-aircraft weapons. A Libyan soldier, who had served for 18-years, said he watched on as soldiers cheered.
Al-Saadi and his bodyguard have denied any order had been given. They labelled the soldier a liar. They believed the protesters were armed and his men were defending themselves. The truth behind the massacre has never been found. Al-Saadi’s apparent reconciliation attempt ended, and civil war engulfed the region.
He served his father until the 11th of September when he escaped to Niger for ‘humanitarian reasons’. A month later Muammar Gaddafi was dead. The Gaddafi regime crumbled into the abyss.
Al-Saadi’s exile ended three years afterwards. Niger extracted him back to Libya. He was thrown into a Tripoli jail facing war crime charges. Sitting in the four walls, so many Gaddafi opponents had to bear, we could imagine the time he had to reflect on his life.
Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian governing had benefited his son greatly. He was boisterous and a show-off. Yacht parties, drugs, private concerts with A-list celebrities, and model girlfriends dominated his private lifestyle. Sitting in the jail cell, it would have felt like a faraway dream. At some point though, he did live his dream.
Monopolising Libyan football
Where Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the eldest son, was a part of Muammar’s government, Al-Saadi chose a different career. He wanted to be a footballer. It was his passion. His father adhered and made the necessary moves.
Al-Saadi began his professional football experiment as a 27-year-old in 2000, playing in the city that he was imprisoned in. Al Ahly Tripoli was the first choice, where Al-Saadi was given the captaincy for club and country. His teammates received rewards for passing Gaddafi the ball. Toyota Camrys and 500 Libyan dinars (£250) were the favoured bonuses. “He was the son of the leader so you couldn’t play with him as if he was anyone else,” Musbah Shengab, a former teammate, uttered. “He wasn’t what you’d call a team player.”
These bizarre corruption examples were minimal to what Al-Saadi was manoeuvring behind the scenes. Only his name could be mentioned by television commentators. Officials and opponents were also placed on the balancing scale. Decisions and results were deemed to go Gaddafi’s way, especially as he happened to be the head of the Libyan Football Federation (LFF). Penalties, which the forward took, were normality. Goalkeepers gifted Ahly with goals to keep Gaddafi from enraging. It is no surprise considering people were sent to Abu Salim for less.
As Al-Saadi sits in his cell mythically remembering why he failed to reconcile Benghazi three-years before his imprisonment, he may come back to what happened that season. Prior to Al-Saadi’s arrival, Al-Ahly Benghazi – Tripoli’s namesake – had battled for the rights to hold the name. Al-Saadi’s signing resulted in Benghazi players following him to the capital. On a personal note, the city had publicly displayed their hatred for Gaddafi senior. It was a situation ready to erupt.
Rumours swelled that Al-Saadi’s influence over officials meant they were particular victims of woeful refereeing decisions. They stormed off the field against Al-Saadi’s team because of three clearly wrong decisions going in Tripoli’s favour: two penalties and one offside goal. The Benghazi side was forced to finish the game by security and Al-Saadi’s bodyguards.
The breaking point was on 20th July 2000, the final game of the season. Al-Ahly Benghazi needed a draw to avoid relegation. Then another controversial penalty was handed to their opponents. The fans had enough. Supporters piled on to the pitch, forcing the match to be abandoned. The protests spilt out of the stadium and onto the streets. Photos of Muammar Gaddafi were burned. The line had been drawn.
The Gaddafi’s first strike back with mass arrests, but they waited until Muammar’s coup anniversary to send their real message. On 1st September, bulldozers demolished Al-Ahly’s stadium, training ground, and team offices. People were forced to cheer at the scene. “All our records, our files, our trophies, and medals, were destroyed,” former player Ahmed Bashoun told the Guardian. The Gaddafi’s had turned Al-Ahly Benghazi to dust.
Then the final blows followed. Relegation, an indefinite club ban, and further arrests of people involved at Al-Ahly, including Bashoun. The then 60-year-old served seven months in prison without knowing the charge. To top it off, Al-Saadi’s team won the league.
Representing his country was next. Limited data make it difficult to paint a clear picture of how Gaddafi performed for his country. It is estimated he made 18 appearances and scored two goals between 2000 and 2006.
Onto his next chapter, Al-Saadi moved across the city the next season to Al-Ittihad, bought the club, and immediately secured the league title again. He had achieved the double-title triumph as the dictator’s son, LFF vice-president, team owner, national team captain, and golden striker. It was a fairy-tale story, the perfect ending to Libya’s rising phenomenon’s career in his home country. Next stop: Europe.
‘A boy amongst adults’
On 9th January 2002, an odd transaction was published. The Libyan Arab Foreign Investment (LAFI) bought 5.31 percent of Juventus shares on the stock market. UEFA described it as Muammar Gaddafi ‘taking advantage’ of Juventus’ stock-market flotation. “The sale…. confirms the big interest there is in our club, and in our projects to develop the area of entertainment,” the club stated. The deal was not a coincidence. Muammar Gaddafi had been in contact with Italian Prime Minister and AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. It was decided Juventus would be Al-Saadi’s transfer destination.
The past tied Italy and Libya together. The Italians took over from the Ottoman Empire as their colonisers after their World War One defeat. Libya officially gained sovereign independence in 1951, but the country’s new leader, King Idris I, acted as a puppet figure for western interference. Oil suppliers Shell-BP, Esso, Mobil and Occidental Petroleum wanted access to the country’s billion-dollar resource. All sorts of underhand deals were made in the shadows, including a $4 million annual salary from Occidental Petroleum to King Idris and his associates for the profits the company made.
Muammar Gaddafi’s accession to power in 1969 changed the balance of power, as he targeted the corrupt oil deals. However, as time dragged on, his priorities and international circumstances changed. Gaddafi’s regime became brutal, murderous and corrupt. The 1988 Lockerbie bombing over Scotland was the final nail.
Time went on and Europe eventually re-approached Gaddafi’s government in the early 2000s. In 2003, Al-Saadi’s visit to Spain resulted in a friendly being organised at the Camp Nou. Regardless of the Spanish Football Federation not giving consent for the match to go ahead, the dictator’s son could play at the famous stadium. It was also ensured the match was broadcasted across Spain.
Nonetheless, Berlusconi was extremely close to Muammar Gaddafi throughout the whole period. Unsurprisingly, he had a deep interest in Libya’s oil. Al-Saadi’s move to Serie A was the preferred option by all parties. It was a political sweetener. LAFI entered the Juventus board with potential signing Al-Saadi Gaddafi as their representative.
In the middle of all this was manager Marcelo Lippi. He had a tough choice to make: stand-up to one of the most fearful regimes in the world, block Al-Saadi’s signing and potentially lose his job, or let him sign, be under the Gaddafi crooked microscope, and potentially lose his job. Lippi bravely chose the former. The matter ended. Juventus would not sign Al-Saadi Gaddafi.
The Libyan’s unofficial agent, Silvio Berlusconi, made a phone call to find an alternative. The recipient was Perugia owner Luciano Gaucci. Berlusconi convinced him to sign Al-Saadi not because of his footballing ability, but because the country’s international relations relied upon on it. On 29th June 2003, Al-Saadi Gaddafi signed a two-year-deal with Perugia.
The media presence was substantial. Gaucci turned to the Middle East to capitalise on Al-Saadi’s presence. A deal was struck with Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera to televise training. Even though he arrived at sessions on a helicopter and had a legion of servants, he treated his teammates to parties and holidays. On one occasion, Al-Saadi sponsored Jay Bothroyd’s honeymoon.
One thing the Libyan could not make up for was his lack of footballing skill. “He was among us as a 13-year-old boy among adults,” defender Salvatore Fresi said. “He tried to give one hundred percent but physically he could not simply match us.”
Time went by and the wait for Al-Saadi’s debut grew. And grew. And grew. It was first noted he must resign as Juventus shareholder. Then it was because of a contract registration issue. Finally, it was said he was not fit enough. Al-Saadi worked behind the scenes with personal trainers Ben Johnson and Diego Maradona to improve. He eventually resigned as Juventus shareholder and his debut came against none other than Juventus. It turned into his last appearance for Perugia.
A random drug test had shown Al-Saadi tested positive for performing-enhancing drug Nandrolone. Gaucci immediately found his scapegoat. “The player had back problems and for months he has been going to Germany to be treated by a doctor there,” the owner suggested.
“Basically, the news [of the positive result] is not a surprise. It’s not a secret that certain medicines contain substances that are forbidden for players. He is not to blame at all, he is like an innocent in our society. We told him to get himself treated in Italy, and we were ready to advise him. But he preferred to go abroad.”
The Libyan’s short Perugia career ended that season. He blamed his unsuccessful year on the ‘weak’ team and believed he could perform better with a higher-skilled club. He searched for a team with European football ambitions.
Udinese was the first to hand him a deal. Al-Saadi did not make a good impression. The extravagant lifestyle continued. His only appearance lasted for 10 minutes, against Cagliari, in a meaningless final season game. There was one achievement he could be proud of in the match: he recorded his first and only shot in Serie A. He signed for Sampdoria the following year. The only thing to come of it was an absurd €392,000 hotel bill that he was forced to pay by a court in 2010.
After three failed transfers, Al-Saadi’s ambitious football career was closing. All it needed was the final blow. “I think he should end his career and come back to Libya,” declared Muammar Gaddafi in 2007. His father had shut it down. The living dream was over.
From a dream to a prison
In March 2014, a shaven-headed Saadi Gaddafi is sitting in a chair wearing a blue prison clothing facing a camera. He starts off by apologising to the Libyan population. He admits to the crimes he has been accused of by the new government. It is unclear how valid his admission to guilt was. Videos of him being tortured surfaced the following year.
It was a decade since Saadi was living his dream as a football Rockstar. Now he was trapped in a prison system with a civil war outside his cell. The extravagant parties and world-wide publicity was far gone.
Continuous criminal charges came his way. He was formally charged with the murder of footballer Bashir Rayani, a case from 2006, in 2015. Three years later, Reuters reported he was cleared for murder, deception, threats, enslavement and defamation towards Rayani. Nevertheless, the court handed him a 500 Libyan dinar fine and a one-year suspended prison sentence for possessing and drinking alcohol.
There is little known about what has happened to Al-Saadi since. The once prodigal son to Libya’s dictator enjoyed the rich privilege, wealth, and power like a king. The footballer flaunted it in Libya. He wagered himself as a sporting pawn to develop international relations. The goal was to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming a professional football. He refused to care how he achieved. Ultimately, however, Al-Saadi’s short career was unique, and yet, forgettable.