Think of him as Muammar Kaddafi, Soccer Dad. Sure, the oil-rich Libyan dictator has been accused of everything from concocting chemical weapons to blowing up an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But that doesn't mean he's not a proud father. And if his boy wants to play soccer, then his boy's going to get the best coaching that money can buy. Want to play in the big leagues? Go for it, son!
So it is that Saadi Muammar Kaddafi, a 26-year-old striker of average talent, is surrounded by some of the biggest names in international sports. Among his friends is the convalescing Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, who's given him his shoes for luck. Saadi's been advised by Argentina's troubled demigod, Diego Maradona. Sprinter Ben Johnson, presumably sans steroids, is his personal trainer. And former England coach Terry Venables is in talks with the Libyan national team, on which Saadi plays.
Dad seems happy to pay. Johnson gets a reported $120,000 a month. The British press claims Venables has been offered almost $2 million. And there's such publicity surrounding Saadi that European teams are looking at him as a crowd draw. Malta's Birkirkara FC claims to have signed him already to play in upcoming Champtons League matches. But Perugia is still in the running--even though a Libya-Perugia game last summer ended in a riot.
Nobody not on his payroll seriously claims Saadi's got the talent to play in the big leagues. Probably not even Muammar. The Libyan leader used to loathe soccer and once banned it. But he has made soccer diplomacy the key to his rapidly improving relations with Europe. After evidence was discovered in 1991 allegedly linking two Libyan agents to the Lockerbie bombing, Kaddafi's country was embargoed economically, isolated politically and banned from international sports competition. Last year, when Kaddafi cut the deal resulting in the trial now underway in the Netherlands, Libya's formal isolation ended. But Kaddafi's Dr. Evil image endured. Saadi, a sort of Mini-Mu, is meant to present a kinder face to the world.
But Saadi, the third of Kaddafi's seven sons, is said to be his father's favorite. He's obviously spoiled and, not unlike Dad, given to public petulance. At a match against Iraq in Jordan last summer Saadi got into an altercation with security forces blocking his view. Libyan fans went wild, and the Jordanian cops used clubs and gas to break up the riot. Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, graciously said afterwards that only a minority of Libyan fans were to blame, and saluted Saadi's "sporting spirit."
Of course, Uday used to have the Iraqi players flogged when they lost, and he's known to go fishing with hand grenades. But no doubt Saadi's dad was proud. The talk in Tripoli is that Muammar is hoping that one day his favorite son will fill his shoes. For now, he gets to wear Ronaldo's.