Eyeing a different kind of goal

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George Weah, the greatest ever Liberian footballer, has many houses, but one of them is a compound just off Monrovia’s Rehab Road. Every day supplicants throng outside. The lucky ones who get past Weah’s entourage into his office find the 38-year-old perched on a carved throne, wearing reflecting sunglasses, with the word “King” inscribed above his head. “King” is only a start. In the Liberian election of October 11, Weah is expected to become president. Several former footballers are watching closely, as is his benighted country. Though Weah scarcely has a platform beyond promising to “unite” Liberians, his career to date suggests what we can expect.

One of 13 siblings, Weah was raised by his grandmother in the Monrovian slum of West Point. He earned his ticket out by playing as many as three football games a day. In 1987 a Cameroonian club touring Liberia put $5,000 on the table and refused to leave without him. Stops in France, Italy and England followed. In 1995 he was voted world, African and European footballer of the year. He ended up in New York, a favourite destination for Liberian exiles, commuting to training sessions in Europe on Concorde.

Weah’s playing career coincided almost exactly with Liberia’s civil war, which erupted in 1989 and tailed off in 2003. More than 200,000 people were killed, nearly a tenth of the population. Weah tried to help: he gave money, urged child soldiers to go to school, and ran the national football team almost as his private charity. He provided the team’s kit, hotels and goals, though rarely quite enough of those.
As Liberian supporters sing:

We are na satisfy (2x)

The Senior playa can’t score goal

We are na satisfy

The defender foot too short

We are na satisfy

Weah always had political ambitions. “We used to fantasise a little,” recalls Bernard Lama, a teammate at Paris St Germain. “He dreamed of taking power in Liberia, and me in Guyana.”

The dream no longer seemed so crazy after a queue of politicians elsewhere seized power on a sporting ticket. Silvio Berlusconi, Weah’s former boss as owner of AC Milan, became Italian prime minister promising “to make Italy like Milan”. George Bush became governor of Texas mostly thanks to having been managing director of the Texas Rangers baseball club. The wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor in Minnesota, and the bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician, unleashed anti-American riots in Pakistan. From his American perch, Weah took note. Two things were changing: voters were tiring of traditional parties, and the growing number of television sets in the world were showing ever more sport.

However, the warlord Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president, long dissuaded Weah from doing an Arnie.
In 1996, after Weah appealed for an international force to intervene in Liberia, Taylor’s thugs torched his house. Only after Taylor accepted exile in Nigeria in 2003 could Weah seek power.

By this time, with due respect to Sierra Leone and Congo, Liberia was probably the worst place on earth. Most Liberians are or have been refugees, cannot read, have neither job nor fresh water nor electricity, and live on less than 50 cents a day. Weapons abound, but footballs are scarce. As one Liberian journalist summed up, with a certain understatement: “Liberia has suffered more than its share of domestic upheaval in recent years, but it is not a major football power.”

Becoming Liberian president hardly seems a self-serving ambition for a multimillionaire living in New York. The job is challenging: President William Tolbert was bayoneted in bed, while Samuel Doe got his ear chopped off on video before bleeding to death in the bath. Weah’s motives at least appear altruistic. Whereas other Liberian politicians “eat money”, as Liberians say, he gives it: to schools, hospitals or beggars. Gary Armstrong, a British sports sociologist who is studying Liberia, adds: “George Weah never held a gun, nor did he kill anyone,“ which in Liberian politics is quite something. Several of the 22 candidates in next month’s election are tribalist warlords.

Fifteen years playing for the national team seem to have inoculated Weah against tribalism. Having once converted to Islam, he is currently a Christian, and is suitably ecumenical. When I interviewed him in 1999 at Milan, where he played with teammates from everywhere, he said: “We joke with languages. I try to speak a little Portuguese, I say ‘Bom dia’, people joke with English, with Italian. I was just kicking penalties with Andrei Shevchenko and asked him how to say ‘kicking penalties’ in Ukrainian.”

On the other hand, as Weah’s opponents constantly point out, he is a high-school dropout. In Liberia, education is a crucial marker of class: Armstrong notes that even kindergartens hold graduation ceremonies. The educated elite is mostly descended from the freed American slaves who settled Liberia in the nineteenth century. Weah’s English, they complain, is more “Liberian” than “standard”.

This is a strange tack to take in a country where a generation has missed out on school, and decreasing numbers speak English of any kind. Weah’s supporters are euphemistically described as “grass roots”, meaning that many of them were child soldiers. “He know book, he not know book, we will vote for him,” they chant.

Weah is not stupid. Unfortunately, though, he may have swallowed his own myth: seeing himself as role model to a nation. Even as “big man” of the national team, “King George” hated dissent. Now – appearing on Monrovian billboards as Caesar – he is the messianic candidate.

Other footballer-messiahs may follow him. More and more African countries are electing their leaders. Often the national football team is the only institution that commands everybody’s loyalty, and footballers are regarded as almost the only people who got rich honestly. Taribo West, the former Nigerian footballer, says Weah’s bid has inspired him. “I will be aiming to become president [of Nigeria] in 20, 25 years’ time when I will be very prepared,” warns West. He must hope Weah doesn’t let the side down.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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