Things may not always be as simple as they seemingly look like from the outside. The story of Nabil Jaadi serves as a reminder for every young talent out there, unaware of how cruel the footballing business can be.
In 2013 he was one of the biggest talents in world football, winning the prestigious Viareggio Cup with Anderlecht alongside the likes of Jordan Lukaku (today in Lazio), Chancel Mbemba (Porto), Leander Dendoncker (Wolves) and Frank Acheampong (Tianjin Teda). He also captained Morocco to a first ever U17 World Cup, raising praises both locally and internationally. Nabil Jaadi was destined for stardom. But five years later, he is walking around in the streets of Belgium, hoping for a club to give him a chance.
This is the personal story of a young talent experiencing all the shenanigans in football, with controversial agents, ruthless club politics, broken promises and a whole lot of bad luck. This is a story told to prevent other young players from falling into the same dark path.
It's January 2014. A 17-year-old Nabil Jaadi is one of the hottest prospects in Europe. With only six months left in his contract with Anderlecht, it was time to make a career-defining choice. "I was part of the first-team, but they refused to let me play as long as I didn't renew my contract," he recalls in a personal monologue with “La Dernière Heure”. During this time, Jaadi was represented by former Manchester City player Christian Negouai, who has also worked as an adviser for players like Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi. He was ready to extend his stay with Anderlecht, up until a strange request came up during the January transfer window.
The Belgian club allegedly told Jaadi that if he wanted to enter negotiations, whether it was for a new contract or a potential transfer, he had to replace his agent. This certain someone was Mogi Bayat, one of the most powerful figures in Belgian football, who according to VRT, is running more than 90% of the transfer market in the Jupiler League. He was recently arrested by local police for suspected money-laundering and possible match-fixing, and has been working as a club agent for several sides in Belgium over the years.
"They told me that I had to take Mogi. I was young and accepted their demand right away, especially since Mogi had a good reputation at the time. Anderlecht ended up offering me a new five-year deal, but I was told that (current manager) Besnik Hasi was not a fan of me. So with a few days left of the transfer window I sat down with Mogi who came up with four options: Arsenal, Liverpool, Inter or AC Milan”.
All Jaadi had to do was to pick his preferred destination, and Bayat promised to fix the rest. The young offensive midfielder already knew where he wanted to continue his development: "I immediately opted for Arsenal," he said. "A club I had always admired, who dared to give young players a chance. I really thought I was going to sign for them. But days went by and nothing happened, up until the last day of the window."
It was Mogi Bayat calling. "Come on! We're going to Italy. You're signing for Udinese." The influential agent has a close connection to the Italian club and especially the Pozzo family, who own not just Udinese, but also English club Watford and previously Granada in Spain. Players like Cyril Théréau, Sven Kums and Lukasz Teodorczyk have all ended up in Udinese after playing for Anderlecht at some point prior to their move.
According to Jaadi, Bayat told him that Anderlecht were only going to accept the highest offer and that Udinese were willing to pay more than Arsenal. "I was young. I didn't understand anything at this time and was happy anyways. After all it was a club in the Serie A, paying more than one million euros for me. That's huge for a guy who has yet to play a professional game."
"45 missed calls"
Jaadi had finally sealed his move abroad and could not wait to get started. He was told that Udinese had been following him for a long time and that manager Andrea Stramaccioni was a big admirer. But as soon as he arrived, the young prodigy was told that he would play with the under 19's, which came as a shock.
"I didn't want to play with the recruits. The level was catastrophic. If we played them with U21's at Anderlecht we would beat them by ten goals. I just wanted to play with the first-team and show what I was capable of. If I proved to be too weak, okay, but at least give me a chance."
Eventually he was allowed to train with the senior squad, while still playing games with the Primavera side. After some good performances at youth level, he was called up to several Serie A games in January 2015, where the opportunity almost arose.
"The manager was actually going to give me a chance at two occasions, but luck was not on my side. First the player I was about to replace was sent off. Then in another game, the manager told me to get ready in the 86th minute, but the ball never went out of play..."
The opportunity would finally come for Jaadi that same month, on January 22nd, when Udinese visited Napoli in the Coppa Italia. He provided the assist for Théréau as they took the lead and did well on his debut, before being taken off with 20 minutes to go. But only a couple of days before the January window closed, history was about to repeat itself.
"I woke up and saw 45 missed calls on my phone, immediately thinking I had done something wrong. It was the director of Udinese who wanted to see me, looking at different offers from Serie B clubs."
Jaadi was frustrated. Why did he have to leave, right after the impressive debut? Why couldn't he continue his development here? He was told it was impossible to stay at the moment, as there were more than 70 players currently under contract.
"I was given the list of all the clubs interested in me, including the 2nd and 4th placed club in Serie B. They thought it would be too hard for me to compete for a starting spot. So instead they recommended me Latina Calcio and said it was an ideal next step for me. I had never heard about the club, so I looked it up on my phone and saw that they were sitting bottom of the table. I didn't want to go, but it was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, so I ended up agreeing to it. The manager was apparently crazy about me, but when I arrived he asked me what position I was playing in..."
It was a tough move to accept for him, foreseeing a completely different life in Italy when he first arrived as a talent in a new country. During that same window, Latina brought in Nnamdi Oduamadi, a 23-year-old Nigerian from AC Milan, playing in the same position as the then 18-year-old Jaadi. "He was earning something between 30,000 and 35,000 euros at Milan and Latina were paying all of it. So when the President saw that I was playing and this guy who cost him so much money wasn't, he told the manager to find a solution. Result? Me on the bench."
After four forgettable months in the Italian second tier, Jaadi went on holiday, hoping that the next season would bring more fortune. Then the phone rang once again with a call from sporting director Cristiano Giaretta. "You will go on loan to Spain."
Like mentioned earlier, the Pozzo family were in control of several clubs in Europe at the time. One of them was Granada CF, then playing in La Liga with fellow countryman Youssef El-Arabi as part of the squad. But if Jaadi was going out on loan again, he refused to play another season with the reserves.
"I spent two months of pre-season with the first-team at Granada, yet to sign anything. I was scared that they would put me with the reserves as soon as I signed the agreement. On the last day of the transfer window, I told them that I didn't want to stay."
Udinese were not happy and according to Jaadi himself, a senior manager called him, sending a brutal ultimatum. Either he signed with Granada, or returned to Udinese, where he would never play again. "I had no choice but to sign the agreement and of course - I was immediately sent down to play with the reserves."
So he was bound to play with Club Recreativo Granada, the second-team which competed in the Segunda B, the third division of Spanish football. After sitting on the bench for the first three games, Jaadi was already fed up and refused to take part in the warm-ups when they played Sevilla's reserves.
"I lost my head a little, but I was sick of this endless mistreatment. It actually payed off, as I played most of the remaining games that season. It was the third tier, but at least I was playing football."
Another season passed and the whole experience felt like a waste of time to the ambitious youth international. The next summer he received yet another phone call from Giarotta, who has been fired as sporting director at Udinese. He was now working with Serie B club Ascoli and wanted Jaadi to come with him. But this time he wanted to be assured that he was not going to go through another season on the bench, which Giarotta promised. But already at the first day of training, alarm bells started to ring.
"The captain approached me and asked why I would come to Ascoli. Apparently the guy in my position was like the club's own child and played every game."
The "child" captain Luigi Giorgi referred to, was Riccardo Orsolini, a 19-year-old Ascoli academy-graduate who would go on to dominate in the U17 World Cup for Italy and sign a contract with Juventus only months later. However, Jaadi was not worried, as he had watched his colleague in training without being impressed. But as the season started and games went on, he remained on the bench while Orsolini started week in and week out.
"The director was taking me for a fool. My competitor was terrible but kept on playing, even after getting into a fight with the manager. The order came from above - he had to play."
Jaadi felt emotionally exhausted and was struggling to find himself comfortable in the area. Just a month after moving to Ascoli, the local province was hit by an earthquake killing 299 people, making it the second deadliest earthquake in Italy for almost 40 years. He lived only 10 kilometers away from the epicenter and described the feeling as if it was "the end of the world".
So with life spiraling downwards, both on and off the pitch, Jaadi terminated his contract in January, after starting only one game in the Serie B. He finally decided to get rid of Bayat as well, replacing him with world-renowned agent Mino Raiola in a desperate effort of getting his career back on track.
That same month he got a call from Bruno Baltazar, the manager of SC Olhanense in the Segunda Liga. This was the first time Jaadi had received a personal call from a head-coach, which convinced him of trying his luck on the southern coast of Portugal. But once again, bad news were waiting around the corner. After his debut with the club against Porto B, Baltazar told the players that he was leaving his position and went on to manage AEL Limassol in Cyprus. In came Bruno Saravia, a former centre-back of the club who managed to save them from relegation in 2013. He was appointed to do the same this time around and made one thing clear in the locker room upon his arrival:
"He immediately said that the six guys on loan would not be playing. Tell me about it... After that message, the other players affected terminated their contract or f***ed things up at the club. I decided against it and continued training as normal. That helped a little and the manager did let me come on for a few games."
"A footballer, not a traveller"
So after a fourth disappointing loan-spell, Jaadi returned to Udinese once again with a clear message to the board. He was not going out on loan again, regardless of which club were asking for his services. Enough was enough, he thought to himself.
"I told them directly that I was not going out on loan anymore. I was a footballer, not a traveler. ‘Stop sending me left and right,’ I said. Raiola agreed with my reasoning."
He had to train alone at first but was soon integrated to the first-team on a daily basis, despite not being able to take part in games. Instead, Jaadi was forced to play with the Primavera side again, mainly consisting of players three to five years younger than him.
After playing regular youth football for four months at the age of 21, he felt that another loan move was the only choice he had. The next destination was Greece and Asteras Tripolis, who were fighting for a continental spot. But for the fifth time, Jaadi somehow found himself on loan under a manager who wouldn't give him a chance. Savvas Pantelidis was an old-school Greek who never left the country, neither as a player or manager. A tricky, young and untested winger from the Italian league was apparently not his cup of tea.
"The directors wanted me, but not the manager, who only seemed to know about Greek football. He would know everything about players in the local 4th division, but was clueless about a guy in the Bundesliga. Even Raiola was surprised."
So Jaadi left Tripoli after the 17/18 season, having only played 30 minutes during his three months with the club. It was time for pre-season with Udinese again and he had never been further away from a place in the squad. He felt like he had no other choice...
"(Captain) Valon Behrami came to me and didn't understand why the club wouldn't give me an opportunity. He thought I could help them, because the level was catastrophic. People were wondering why the club were so eager to make me suffer. I was still on a contract until 2019, but managed to negotiate a termination of the last year. I lost a lot of money, but I wanted to regain my freedom in order to earn a real chance somewhere else."
Today, Nabil Jaadi is a free agent, desperately looking for a club to give him a shot. He just had a trial with Serie C club AS Lucchese and recently went back to his country of birth with a bag of regretful experiences, but is still highly motivated and optimistic about the future.
"When coming back to Belgium, I've realized that I don't know a lot of people in Belgian football. I don't have a salary and I'm still without a club, with few actually aware of my availability. By searching my name on the internet, you won't even see any mention of my contract termination with Udinese. But I don't care about money, I just want to play again. I'm even ready to go on trial in Belgium if need be. Currently, I'm training alone twice a day. I've also completed a full preparation-camp with Udinese, so I'm ready to go."
When asked about the big decision he made as a 17-year-old, Jaadi says he would indeed sign a new deal with Anderlecht if he had the opportunity to go back in time. He now hopes that his story will serve as an eye-opener to every young talent in today's footballing world, keeping in mind that it's not always the most talented who makes it to the top and that there are many aspects involved for a player to succeed. Aspects he became brutally aware of over the last years.
Benjamin Hajji, a Norwegian-Moroccan Football writer and the man behind @MaghribFoot - the primary source for Moroccan football in English.