The Premier League of the 90s was defined by an influx of exciting attacking midfielders and deep-lying forwards from abroad – just about every team had one. And Coventry City were no different, they had Mustapha Hadji; a World Cup star.
Eric Cantona set a standard in the Premier League for foreign imports being their team’s creative spark, and everyone promptly followed suit. Arsenal got Bergkamp, Chelsea with Zola, City had Kinkladze, Juninho at Middlesbrough, just to name a few standouts.
Coventry’s move for Hadji was the kind of move that you don’t really find these days, even with all the money in the Premier League. Here was Hadji, a player who shone for his country at two World Cups, the 1998 African Footballer of the Year (the first of which who wasn’t born in West Africa), and someone who was a part of an incredibly exciting Deportivo side, signing for a mid-table Premier League side.
It wasn’t so strange at the time though, and the league was quite accustomed to welcoming exciting attacking players from all over the world. Coventry supporters’ excitement showed, though: inspired by their new star, along with the arrival of Hadji’s compatriot Youssef Chippo from Porto the same year, it was far from uncommon to see fans wearing a fez.
Hadji was born in Morocco but emigrated to France at the age of ten, where he got his football education. His career started at Nancy, where his brother now plays, but his time there was hampered by never managing to blend with incoming coach Laszlo Bolini. He still shone, though, and his performances – as well as his brief time in the 1994 World Cup’s group stages – saw him move abroad to Sporting Lisbon.
“It was a great adventure. I had to prove myself in a country I didn’t know and where I didn’t speak the language. I was absolutely determined to succeed.”
Mustapha Hadji on his time in Portugal.
Sporting only held onto the Moroccan for a year, although there was enough time for Hadji to lift what would prove to be the only trophy of his career: the Portuguese Cup. In 1997, Hadji moved to Deportivo, then one of football’s most exciting projects. Boasting some of the top Brazilian talent around, Hadji grew as a player in a team that would become champions of Spain in 2000 – unfortunately a year after he left.
“I learned so much in that time as virtually half of Brazil’s World Cup winning team were in the side; players like Bebeto, Donato, Rivaldo and Mauro Silva.”
While at Depor, the 1998 World Cup came around, giving Hadji his second opportunity to show the world what he was capable of. He took it, too, most memorably scoring a brilliant solo goal in a 2-2 draw with Norway.
“It was one of my most exciting goals for the national team along with one I scored against Egypt in the African Cup of Nations that year, a last-minute overhead kick that put us into the quarter-finals.”
Morocco again struggled, and were eliminated in the group stages once more, but Hadji’s impact was awarded with the 1998 African Footballer of the Year award – making him the very first non-west African to win it.
A year later, Coventry would splash £4m on Hadji – their club record fee at the time. Coventry had a somewhat disappointing season however, finishing in 14th – three places lower than the previous season – despite the successful signings of Hadji and Robbie Keane. His second season would prove even more unfortunate.
Captain Gary McAllister left for Liverpool and star striker Robbie Keane moved to Internazionale, leaving Coventry struggling badly. The team sank, even with a young Craig Bellamy making a name for himself, and was relegated in 19th place.
Even though his two seasons at Coventry were in less-than-ideal conditions, Hadji still made an impact. He was a creative influence and a goalscoring midfielder, netting some memorable strikes against Arsenal.
He also left an impact on Aston Villa. In his penultimate game for the Sky Blues, Hadji scored twice away at Villa Park. The game was a must-win for Coventry, needing a win to keep them up. Hadji would fire his team 2-0 up, only for Villa to reply with three, relegating City and their Moroccan star.
What the Birmingham side saw that day prompted them to spend £2m + Julian Joachim (who was currency, apparently) to bring Hadji to them.
Unfortunately, the move didn’t work out. After 62 appearances and 12 goals for Coventry in two seasons, Hadji managed just 35 and two in his two and a half seasons at Aston Villa.
Nothing more than a squad player at Villa Park, Hadji eventually left on a free transfer to Espanyol, eventually retiring as an amateur in Luxembourg’s top flight.
Nowadays Mustapha Hadji is the assistant coach for his native Morocco, working with the current generation of Moroccan playmakers, such as Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal, and Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech.
Hadji may not have been a world-class player, and he certainly never ended up with a full trophy cabinet, but the former African player of the year still managed to have an adventure of a career, even managing to leave his mark on the Premier League.
In an era when there was more competition than ever, Mustapha Hadji still managed to stand out, and that in itself is a fantastic achievement.