Copyright The International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2005
It was only a matter of time before one of the modern rags-to-riches soccer superstars ran for office as president of a country.
George Weah, who left behind life in a shack on a former Liberian mangrove swamp to score goals and make his fortune on three continents, is back in Liberia to put himself forth as the leader who will raise his homeland out of bloodshed and poverty.
It is a big task, but George Manneh Weah is a big man.
“I don’t need political experience,” he tells the crowds, “to give you schools. I don’t need political experience to give you lights, and water, or to see that the roads are bad.”
And this man of many abodes, with a family home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is like a magnate to the poor. He came through poverty, he carries titles like Unicef goodwill ambassador, he donates to the building of schools and clinics, and at one time he literally clothed Liberia’s national soccer team when it had no kit to call its own.
Why would he not be a credible political head of state in the October election? If Ronald Reagan could make American president, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can be governor of California, who is to say that a well-traveled soccer star has less intellect, or attracts less popularity, than a Hollywood “great”?
Weah knows the odds. He is one of 27 candidates for the job in Liberia. But then he was one of 13 children, abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother.
Barefoot shantytown soccer was where he found himself. As a child he was blessed. He always could move swiftly, and shoot ferociously. He was a legend in his own boyhood, leapfrogging from teams called Young Survivor of Clartown, then Bongrange Company and next, Mighty Barole and Invincible Eleven.
Those Liberian junior teams give the flavor of his youth; the names hide a troubled adolescence from a growing menace, on and off the dirt pitches. He departed Liberia for the richer pastures of Tonnerre de Yaoundé in Cameroon – and his good luck was that Claude le Roy, a Frenchman coaching the Cameroon national squad, recommended Weah to Arsène Wenger.
Wenger, now the Arsenal manager, was at that time gaining coaching experience with Monaco. He took the explosive, untutored African talent to the opulent ministate of Monaco and, as with the grooming of Eliza Doolittle, he taught him airs and graces and not simply how to develop his natural talent.
Monaco couldn’t hold Weah, and Wenger wouldn’t hold him back. He moved on to Paris Saint-Germain, then to AC Milan where he replaced the irreplaceable Marco van Basten.
Among the accolades came the European, African and World player awards in 1996, and on one ceremony in Milan, Weah called his former mentor Wenger to the stage and handed over his award to “the man who taught me to persevere, to live a decent life and to play fair.”
It seemed spontaneous. It was done in the same breathtaking way that Weah had that year collected the ball near his own penalty area and outpaced, outwitted seven men of Verona until, with handsome, elegant, brutal finality he shot past the goalkeeper.
Statistics give you an inkling of what that goal drew out of him. He covered 85 meters in 14 seconds, with the ball. He took just 30 strides. And none of us has any idea of whether he knew where he was going or how he would finish it off.
In the summer of 2002, we saw a more calculating side to Weah, the first inkling of politics. At the congress of the governing body of world soccer, FIFA, in Seoul, Sepp Blatter, the European, was in competition with Isa Hayatou, the African for the presidency.
Weah, by then converted to Islam and enjoying the riches of playing for the Al Jazira club in the United Arab Emirates, spoke on the congress floor – against the Cameroonian Hayatou.
“Blatter has been a true friend to football and Africa,” he said, “I guarantee he will have the support of my own country.”
He went on, heatedly, to praise the “Goal Program” through which FIFA, in Blatter’s first four-year term as president, handed out millions of dollars for building projects.
“Hayatou has been at the helm of affairs for 12 or 14 years,” Weah said. “But African football has remained in a pathetic state of affairs. He is contesting the election for personal gain, something which will not help African football.”
That withering intervention in FIFA politics cut to the jugular as precisely as Weah’s goal against Verona.
Weah was emerging as more than a soccer player. He personally funded the Liberia team through a World Cup campaign, he worked with Unicef on issues like AIDS prevention and vocational training for former child soldiers.
His villa in Monrovia was torched during Charles Taylor’s regime. He took French citizenship and lately has been living with his American wife and three children, one of them adopted, in the United States.
And now, he’s back home, leading the Congress for Democratic Change Party.
Reports from Monrovia suggest that Weah will score a win in the poll on Oct. 11, and that the soccer wanderer will then have to deliver on his promises to rebuild a country fractured by 14 years of civil war.
His family is concerned for his safety, but he appears compelled to convert sporting popularity into a catalyst for change where he came from.
In modern international sport, only Imran Khan, the cricketer, has managed to cross the threshold into politics – though many have predicted that Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, even though he was again accused on Tuesday of taking performance-enhancing drugs, will try for U.S. office, following the lead of such sportsmen politicians as Bill Bradley, Jim Ryun, Jack Kemp, Jim Bunning and Steve Largent.
To the young electorate in Liberia, the stature of Weah, a 38-year-old whom they call King George, might well be reason to trust him rather than the ex-soldiers and career politicians seeking their vote.