George Weah: From The Pitch To The Presidency

On December 26, 2017, 2.2 million Liberians went from their Christmas celebrations to cast their votes to determine who would replace outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who was Africa’s first woman head of state). The contest was between 73-year-old Vice President Joseph Boakai and a young(ish) upstart by the name of George Weah. As of this writing, preliminary results are trending in Weah’s favor. If he does indeed win the Liberian presidency, this transition from the pitch to a presidency will surely make him the greatest footballer turned politican of all time.

Serie_A_1995-96_-_Parma_vs_Milan_-_George_Weah_e_Fabio_Cannavaro
George Weah, making the defensive line of Parma look like sculpted butter, November 1995 (photo by Luca Misculin)

George Weah’s rise from playing for such starkly named clubs as Young Survivors in his native Liberia, to striking terror into the hearts of defenders on some of the most iconic clubs of Europe, and then returning to Monrovia as a national leader is an unlikely one – and a tale worth telling.

A member of the Kru minority, Weah was born and raised in the Claratown – a slum built on a swamp on the fringes of Monrovia. As of 2009, health officials reported that in Claratown, 75,000 people share 11 public toilets and 22 public taps. Largely raised by his paternal grandmother, Weah got his start playing for local club Young Survivors of Claratown and from there became an exciting force in Liberian soccer, moving on to the country’s top-flight clubs like Mighty Barolle and Invincible Eleven (someday I’m going to do a whole article on nothing but the incredible club names in Africa; maybe all of these American clubs calling themselves Real United Sporting FC can learn a thing or two). In 1987, he moved to Cameroonian club Tonnerre Yaoundé, who were in the midst of a dynastic run within that nation’s top league.

In Cameroon, Weah caught the eye of then-youngish Alsatian coach named Arsene Wenger (have your heard of him? A lot of people think he needs to get outside more often or something), who quickly signed him to play with AS Monaco in France’s Ligue 1. Weah lept in to French play, netting 14 goals on 23 league appearances, as well as plenty more in Cup competition and Champions League play. In 1989, he was awarded the African Footballer Of The Year for the first time (it wouldn’t be his last). Weah went on to lead Monaco to victoire in the 1991 Coupe de France, and then on to glory in the  European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992, scoring four goals in nine cup appearances before finally being felled by Werder Bremen in the Final.

Weah’s relationship with Wenger remained incredibly close, even after Weah moved on to other clubs. When he won the World Player award in 1995, Weah (then at AC Milan) called Wenger up on to the stage and handed him the award, saying that Wenger deserved it more than he did. So think about that next time you photobomb your sister’s wedding photos with your WENGER OUT signs.

Wenger Weah

Weah moved from the small, humble Mediterranean village of Monaco, up the to bright lights, big city of Paris to join PSG for their 1992-93 season. This proved to be a highly prolific period for the pacey striker. With Weah on board, PSG won the Coupe de France in 1993 and 1995, the French league in 1994, and the Coupe de la Ligue in 1995. Weah was also the top scorer of the 1994-95 Champions League, reaching the semifinals with a golazo against Bayern Munchen that will still bring a tear to many a Bavarian’s eye.

Joining AC Milan for the 1995-96 season, Weah immediately stunned the Italian league with his lightning speed, intricate footwork, and unfailing nose for goal. If you want a sense of how Weah was playing during this period, I simply invite you to review this footage of  the “George Weah versus the Six Gentlemen of Verona” goal, in which he receives the ball well within Milan’s own  box, and proceeds to blow past one, two, three, four, five… six (?!) Verona defenders before rocketing the ball in to the net.

But all was not pesche e crema during Weah’s time at Milan. On November 20, 1996, Weah head butted Porto defender Jorge Costa in the tunnel following a Champions League draw. Costa sustained a broken nose, requiring surgical repair. Weah said that he exploded in frustration after enduring constant racist abuse from Costa during both Champions League matches. Costa denied this, and sued Weah for $90,000. Weah took responsibility for the assault – sustaining a six match European ban – and attempted to apologize to Costa, who refused the apology. However, Weah did go on to win the FIFA Fair Play Award of 1996.

Weah decided to ply his skills in Merry Olde England, joining Chelsea on a loan midway through the 1999-2000 season. He immediately endeared himself to the Stamford Bridge faithful by netting a goal against rivals Tottenham Hotspur in his debut match. He went on to contribute mightily to Chelsea’s FA Cup campaign, scoring crucial goals against Leicester City and Gillingham, laying the table for Chelsea’s 1-0 final victory against Aston Villa.

Despite this, Chelsea skipper Gianluca Vialli declined to make Weah’s move permanent, leading him to find a new home with a ragtag bunch of Northern misfits known as Manchester City. He played 11 games in all competitions for City, scoring four times, before leaving on October 16, 2000 after becoming dissatisfied with manager Joe Royle for selecting him as a substitute too frequently; he had only played the full 90 minutes in three of his 11 games. After this, he winded down his playing days with a spell at Olympique Marseilles (open wide and say OM) and then Saudi club Al Jazira. He finally retired at the ripe old age of 37.

Back in Liberia, Weah announced his intention to seek the presidency in 2005, founding the Congress For Democratic Change as his own political party. Weah won the initial plurality of votes, which triggered a runoff election. Sirleaf went on to win that election, although Weah alleged that the result came from vote-tampering and intimidation. After receiving assurances from the African Union that the election was “peaceful, transparent, free and fair,” Weah urged his supporters to be calm and accept the result as legitimate.

Following this, Weah divided his time between Liberia and the United States (where he opened a restaurant in Brooklyn called Flaky Crust and got a degree from DeVry University in Miami). He returned to Liberia to run for that nation’s Senate in 2014, and won by a landslide of 78% against the Robert Sirleaf (son of President Sirleaf — I don’t think George is going to be getting any Christmas cards from the Sirleaf family).

Announcing his intention to run for President for a second time in April 2016, Weah has campaigned hard since then in what is the first round of national elections to be run entirely by the country’s institutions and security forces since the country’s extensive period of civil wars ended in 2003. He now appears to be the next leader of this nation of 4.5 million souls.

P.S. Minnesotans, our state played no small role in this election.

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