Libya leader's son tries to show he's a real player
Posted 8/10/2003 8:53 PM
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
PERUGIA, Italy — Saadi Gadhafi, the third of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's seven sons and
Italy's most unlikely soccer import, is trying hard to prove that his intentions in one of the world's
top soccer leagues amount to more than a lark.
The 30-year-old forward with a limited résumé as a world-class player gained widespread
attention, and a fair share of snickers, when he signed a one-year contract with Perugia of Italy's
Serie A. Most saw the move as a publicity gimmick from a team known for such things. The team
insists it was based on Gadhafi's talent.
Nobody will know for sure until at least the last weekend in August, when Perugia opens its
season. Meanwhile, its new No. 19 is trying hard to be convincing. His work ethic in practices
has earned some positive comments, and he has withdrawn his candidacy for president of the
Confederation of African Football so he can concentrate on playing.
"I admire him for trying to make a jump to Serie A at the age of 30," said Ze Maria, 30, a Brazilian
defender who starts for Perugia. "That's hard to do at any age. It was hard for me when I first
came at age 23, and I was faster than I am now.
"He has a lot to do in order to be ready for this game, but he is improving every day. He understands the way we play better and is
getting in better shape. We don't think about him being the son of his country's ruler. He is a player like the rest of us. He is forming
friendships with me and the other players."
Best known as a soccer administrator and investor, the 6-1 Gadhafi has had some success on the field with Libya's national team.
After injury sidelined him for nine of 10 matches in Libya's unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, he scored eight
goals in as many games during an unsuccessful bid to qualify for next year's African Cup of Nations.
But his credentials are short of those built by other Serie A players. Many have clawed their way through Italian clubs' player
development systems, had World Cup experience for another country or dominated a weaker league elsewhere in the world.
Some strong results for Gadhafi in Libya's domestic league have been tempered by the perception that defenses there don't play him
tough, and referees often give him the benefit of the doubt because of his lineage. "I saw some film of (Gadhafi) on TV, and the Libyan
defenders he was playing against didn't rush him. They didn't play hard. I could score with defense like that," says Claudio Betini, a 39-
year-old Perugia fan. "But that doesn't mean he isn't a good player."
Perugia officials insist Gadhafi earned his place on the roster.
"We look at Saadi as someone who can make Perugia a better team," said Alessandro Gaucci, the team's general manager and son
of team owner Luciano Gaucci. "Perugia has always looked for undervalued players to develop. We don't have the resources to buy
the established stars."
Perugia has had the imagination, however, to seek the spotlight with some of its player moves. Luciano Gaucci famously fired South
Korean striker Ahn Jung Hwan after Ahn scored the goal that eliminated Italy from the World Cup last year, then tried to re-hire him
when it became clear interest in Ahn was skyrocketing. More recently, Gaucci hired disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson to help
players improve their speed. He also has announced plans to sign the first Serie A player contract with a woman within six months.
Adding to the oddity of Gadhafi's signing, at least from the American mindset about pro sports, are some of his family's business
dealings — in Italian pro soccer. He owns 7.5%, and a seat on the board of directors, of Juventus, the world-renowned Serie A team.
He was also involved in a financial rescue deal for Lazio, another Serie A team, and has a marketing agreement with the team. He
also has an undisclosed stake in Triestina, a second-tier club. "There is no conflict of interest with the ownership of the stake in
Lazio," Alessandro Gaucci said. "There are no rules against such a thing."
Perugia's fans here seem unconcerned about such matters or about the team's association with the Gadhafi regime.
"At least he is attracting attention," says Antonio Marino, 51. "In Italy, the big teams like Inter (Milan) and Juventus and (AC) Milan get
the attention, so it's nice for us to get some. It doesn't matter too much to me if Gadhafi was signed to get attention or because he is a
good player. As long as the team is good. ... I hope the addition of a famous person like Gadhafi will not change the way they work
Perugia finished tied for ninth among 18 teams last season, not a serious contender for the league title, but far from being relegated
to Serie B, the fate of the worst four teams each season.
It's not clear how much the deal with Gadhafi is costing Perugia. Some reports have suggested Gadhafi, whose net worth is thought
to reach deep into the millions, may have paid Perugia for the right to play. Any investment made by the club likely will be recouped in
sales of merchandise and TV rights in North Africa.
Gadhafi's motives are harder to understand. He declined repeated interview requests for this story, but in the news conference
announcing his contract, he said he was eager to see how he compared to some of the sport's greatest players.
More likely is the possibility that his adventure is part of a broader plan by Libya to use soccer to help reform its image as a pariah of
the world stage. The elder Gadhafi has even has said he wants Libya to host the 2010 World Cup. Its soccer federation paid a
reported $1 million guarantee to the Argentine national team to play Libya in Tripoli in April and has offered unrevealed sums to FC
Barcelona, Juventus and Parma, another top Italian team, to play exhibitions there.
But none of that seems likely to help Saadi Gadhafi get on the field for a Serie A match. His teammates and coach are kind in
discussing his abilities, saying he has had a hard time adjusting to the league's fast-paced and rugged style, but no more so than
But he has a lot of demands other rookies don't. During a week in late July, he was in Bordeaux, France, for a charity exhibition game
in which he asked to participate at the last minute, and that appearance was sandwiched between trips to Trentino, far north of
Perugia, and to Rome, to the south. He also spent time house hunting before settling for an expansive villa that includes a half-sized
"Obviously, his situation is different than other player's situations," Perugia coach Serse Cosmi said. "Our goal is just to get him ready
Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
This article originally appeared in
Top Italian club Perugia says signing
Gadhafi is no gimmick. Here he takes
part in a charity game in France.
By Bob Edme, AP