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Liberia wishes on shooting star

Published: Friday 14 October 2005, 8.34CET
George Weah's journey from world player of the year to Liberian presidential hopeful is an extraordinary one and is bringing hope to a war-torn nation.
by James Copnall
Published: Friday 14 October 2005, 8.34CET

Liberia wishes on shooting star

George Weah's journey from world player of the year to Liberian presidential hopeful is an extraordinary one and is bringing hope to a war-torn nation.

The 1995 world and European player of the year is now within touching distance of an even greater honour: being elected his nation's president. George Weah is turning the fame he gained as a silky-smooth striker with AS Monaco FC, Paris St-Germain FC, AC Milan and Chelsea FC into grass-roots popularity he believes will win him the Liberian elections.

Early lead
Weah's countrymen and women voted on Tuesday, and early if incomplete poll results give him the lead. At the very least Weah seems sure to be among the top two candidates who would proceed to a direct run-off, in elections designed to put a seal on the country’s return to normality after 14 years of civil war.

Shooting star
Weah's journey from shooting star to presidential hopeful is an extraordinary one. The future politician was born into poverty in a Monrovia suburb, and - like many Liberians in a country where almost 85 per cent of the population is illiterate - did not receive much in the way of a higher education. Weah did shine on the football pitch though. His first steps as a professional were in Cameroon, but it was not long before Arsène Wenger signed him at Monaco. Goals and honours flowed, but Weah's career reached its apogee at Milan in 1995. It was there that the man from the Lone Star State, as Liberia is known, became the first African to be named both European and world player of the year.

Pride of Liberia
But if his most prominent moments in football were spent on the perfect pitches of Serie A, perhaps his most worthwhile were back home in Liberia. The country was devastated by a civil war that killed as many as 200,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Throughout the chaos Weah always returned to play for the national team, the Lone Star, the one glimmer of brightness the country could cling to throughout the dark years. As a high profile and brilliant public figure, Weah was someone Liberians could be genuinely proud of.

'Football is a unifier'
But his impact was greater even than that. "It is almost impossible to explain how much George has done for Liberia," explained the country's sports minister, Wheatonia Dixon-Barnes. "In Liberia, football is everything. It is crazy, but football is a unifier. Even during the heat of the war, the warring factions put down their arms to come to football games." Weah made his team-mates visit orphanages, kept them in contact with the people who idolised them, and, on more than one occasion, dipped into his pockets to finance costly away trips. The Lone Star almost pipped Nigeria to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and also went to two African Cup of Nations final tournaments.

Real integrity
Weah's popularity, when set against the reputations of the warlords and the corrupt élite who destroyed the country, could not fail to rise. As the war came to an end in 2003, the persistent whispers that 'Mister George' might turn to politics became a clamour. His opponents charged that this was a man of limited education, completely unfit to run a nation. But his supporters said Weah was a man of real integrity, who had helped his country when everyone else had ruined it.

Tearful journey
Weah himself rejects the thought that his only appeal lies in the talent in his feet. "This election is not about popularity," Weah said. "I have been very famous and since then people respect me. They look at me and see hope and know I can bring about change." Weah also feels his football career will aid him as a politician. "Coming from the football field, I am a sportsman," he said. "I am disciplined, and I respect human dignity. What shocked me most [travelling around Liberia] was the living conditions in the hinterlands. There is a crisis of distribution and crops. Tears were coming from my eyes."

'Million man march'
Will Weah get the chance to put his good intentions into practice? The UNICEF ambassador certainly has support. A recent rally billed as the 'Million Man March' through the Liberian capital Monrovia may only have attracted 100,000, but that in itself represents a tenth of the city's population. Trucks overflowing with people bumped over potholed streets past buildings still scarred with bullet-holes. Women shouting their hero's name mingled with young men wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Weah's face. One was particularly clever: 9 + 14 = 23, the blue numbers said, in reference to the No9 shirt Weah wore in Europe, the No14 Liberia shirt he shone in, and the fact that, if elected, Weah would be the 23rd Liberian president.

One supporter, who asked to be known as Small Woody, explained why he had chosen the former footballer. "I am voting for Weah because in all of the past decades all the politicians were doing their own things with resources," he said. "Weah will share things among the youth. He didn't take any part in war affairs and he is not a warlord." That does not seem much. But in a country which has suffered as greatly as Liberia, it means a lot. As he waits for the results, Weah must tell himself that his transformation from footballer to politician has begun as well as one of the mazy dribbles that used to enchant France, Italy, England - and Liberia.

Last updated: 15/10/05 18.46CET

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