Premier League Files: Mustapha Hadji

Premier League Career: Coventry City (1999-2001), Aston Villa (2001-2004)

Currently assistant manager of the Morocco international team, it has been over 20 years since Mustapha Hadji made his impact as a player, scoring a brilliant goal for his country on the opening day of the 1998 World Cup finals against Norway. Hadji tried his luck in the Premier League in 1999 with Coventry City and remained on these shores for five years, having also represented Aston Villa. He still remains as one of the most successful players to represent his country in the Premier League.

Born in Ifrane Atlas-Saghir, Hadji left his homeland for France at the age of 10 and began playing football shortly afterwards at youth level. He made his professional debut with AS Nancy in 1991 and remained with them for five years, scoring 31 times in 134 league appearances. He was part of the Morocco squad that played in the 1994 World Cup finals, although they would lose all their matches in the group stage. He came on as a substitute in two of these matches and setup a goal for his teammate Hassan Nader against the Netherlands.

In 1996, Hadji moved to Portugal but had an unhappy year at Sporting Lisbon and also struggled to make an impact during a two-year stay at Deportivo La Coruna where he was limited to 31 appearances. So, the 1998 World Cup finals was a chance for him to make his mark. He duly delivered in that opening game against Norway which finished in a 2-2 draw. Hadji was also exceptional in Morocco’s victory against Scotland. However, Norway’s late win over holders Brazil meant the Africans were eliminated in the group stage again. Despite this disappointment, Hadji was named African Footballer of the Year.

In 1999, Gordon Strachan took him to the Premier League, bringing Hadji and his international colleague, Youssef Chippo to Coventry City. A goalscoring attacking midfielder, Hadji scored 12 times in 62 appearances for the Sky Blues and quickly became a cult hero at Highfield Road. He raised his levels when the higher-profile clubs visited Coventry and his best game for the club arguably came on Boxing Day 1999. He scored a brilliant curling effort from distance in a surprising 3-2 victory over Arsenal.

He was the club’s joint top goalscorer in 2000-2001 alongside Craig Bellamy but Coventry were relegated at the end of the season. That was despite Hadji’s best efforts in the game they went down as he scored twice at Villa Park against Aston Villa. His goals in the game put Coventry 2-0 up but they squandered that advantage and Paul Merson’s late winner, coupled with a Derby victory at Old Trafford sent the Sky Blues down to the First Division.

John Gregory was impressed by Hadji’s form at Coventry, so kept him in the Midlands by signing him for Aston Villa in the summer of 2001. He scored in a UEFA Cup tie against Varteks and twice in the Premier League away at Southampton and Everton. However, Gregory’s departure in January 2002 was a disaster for Hadji’s English career. He became a sporadic player for Graham Taylor and was barely used by David O’Leary too. In 2004, he was released and joined Espanyol on a free transfer.

He ended his playing career in July 2010 after periods playing in the United Arab Emirates, as well as for 1. FC Saarbrucken in Germany and CS Fola Esch in Luxembourg. He scored 25 goals in 44 appearances for the latter before hanging up his boots.

Hadji made the move into coaching in 2012 as an assistant for the Qatari club Umm Salal before being appointed assistant manager for Morocco before the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. He is also involved in partnership with plans to invest in Morocco, providing opportunities for local people to help reduce poverty from his homeland.

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