Three years ago the South African Football Association announced the names of the four players it had chosen as ambassadors for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Joining George Weah, Abedi Pele and Roger Milla in the esteemed quartet was Mustapha Hadji, the former Morocco playmaker and the scorer of one of the most memorable goals of the tournament at France 1998.
"It was a very happy moment for me," Hadji tells FIFA.com in reference to his selection. "I found it very heart warming, though there are so many good players in Africa I just wondered why they picked me."
Regarded as one of the greatest ballplayers in the rich history of Moroccan football, the modest Hadji, older brother to Nancy striker Youssouf, scored 13 goals in all for his country. Having retired from the professional game two years ago, he continues to fulfil his passion for football by running out as an amateur for Luxembourg league outfit Fola Esch. "It's a return to my roots," explains the 1998 African Footballer of the Year as he prepares to call time on a 15-year career in which he scaled the peaks of world football.
After starting out in Ligue 1 with Nancy, Hadji did his fair share of travelling across the continent, checking in for spells with the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Deportivo La Coruna, Coventry City and Aston Villa before ending up in Germany with Saarbrucken. And though he failed to collect the trophies and accolades that his skills perhaps deserved, the gifted Moroccan, one of the finest technicians to emerge from the African game, harbours no regrets whatsoever about his colourful career.
He first came to prominence at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA. "It was the turning point for me," he explains. Then aged 22, Hadji had just completed a season in the second division with Nancy, having decided 12 months earlier to pledge his allegiance to his native Morocco rather than his adopted homeland of France.
"The competition was too strong with Les Bleus," he explains. "Morocco had always been close to my heart anyway, even though I'd made my career in France." Though 15 years have now passed since his American adventure, Hadji has never forgotten its significance in terms of his footballing education.
"I was used to playing in front of crowds of 5,000 but there I was with 100,000 fans watching me. It was a different world, a different game. That World Cup gave me a new status altogether and not everyone gets the chance to play in a tournament as big as the World Cup at the age of 22."
Hadji faced problems on his return to eastern France, however, and after failing to establish a rapport with new Nancy coach Laszlo Boloni, he was lured to Portugal by Sporting Lisbon. "When I went there I found out what real football was all about. We played in front of 60,000 people and you used to get 3 or 4,000 at training sessions too. 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."
After doing just that, he gained further exposure at the highest level with a move to Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna, a major force in La Liga at the time. Surrounded by some of the world's finest players, Hadji was given the job of midfield orchestrator. "I have some wonderful memories of my time there and it was a step up for me. 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."
The next phase in Hadji's inexorable rise came at France 1998, a tournament he lit up with a simply stunning goal against Norway in Morocco's opening group game France. "Norway hadn't lost in 16 matches, they had qualified for the finals in style and were big favourites to win. I ran with the ball at my feet for about 60 metres before scoring. 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."
Though Hadji's wonder strike ultimately failed to help Morocco progress beyond the first round, he was now being courted by a clutch of English sides. His first port of call was Coventry City followed by Aston Villa, two clubs where he made quite an impression. "The Premier League is like a different planet," says Hadji. "Every player should experience it at least once in their career. Football is a religion there and on Sundays whole families go and watch games together. I remember how crazy people went trying to get tickets for matches on Boxing Day. They used their Christmas money just for that. There's no doubt English fans have a special love for their teams."
Here and now
With two sons in French football academies, one at Nancy and the other at Metz, Hadji's ties with the game remain as strong as ever. And though the 37-year-old is now winding down his playing days in Luxembourg, he is happy to be fulfilling his passion for the game in a homely setting that reminds him of his early days. "There's a real family feel here," he explains. "The president is a friend of mine and the people are genuine and very down to earth. There's a real sense of friendship and I get a lot of pleasure out of playing on Sundays. This is how I grew up in the game and I feel like I've gone back to where I started, because when you play at the top level it's a different mentality entirely."
Hadji has plenty to keep him occupied off the pitch as well. Aside from preparing for his ambassadorial role, he also plays beach soccer for the FIFA world team and gives his expert views on Moroccan television on the African Cup of Nations, the UEFA Champions League and, from next season, the English Premier League.
"I've already started on my post-football career and I'm in no rush to make any decisions. I'm still not ready to take on any responsibilities at international or club level. I've been asked a few times already but I've turned things down up to now. I've still got the mindset of a player and it's not easy to be in charge of a group of people. You need to take a psychological approach and bang your fist on the table when need be. I'm not ready for that yet."
Position: Attacking midfield
Clubs: AS Nancy-Lorraine (1991-1996), Sporting Clube de Portugal (1996-1997), Deportivo la Coruna (1997-1999), Coventry City FC (1999-2001), Aston Villa FC (2001-2004), RCD Espanyol (2004), Al Emirates Ras Al-Khaima (2004-2005), FC Sarrebruck (2005-2007), Fola Esch (2007-)
National team: 54 caps (13 goals)
Honours: African player of the year (1998), Portuguese Cup (1996), Two-time participant at the FIFA World Cup (1994, 1998)