- When his story is definitively written, Africa’s children will draw special inspiration from the life of George Oppong Weah who will be inaugurated as Liberia’s President on January 22.
- He is the first professional sportsman in the continent to ascend to the highest office in his country. Weah only has had two careers – football and politics and in each of them, he has scaled the highest summit.
- You cannot earn a higher individual accolade in football than to be voted the Fifa World Footballer of the Year and winner of the Ballon d’Or – the European Footballer of the Year.
In-coming Liberian head of state has battled a tough and impoverished childhood, rose to the pinnacle of world football, almost single-handedly held Liberia’s national football team together and fought gamely to stand where he is today, but will he be any different from the usual mediocre African leadership?
When his story is definitively written, Africa’s children will draw special inspiration from the life of George Oppong Weah who will be inaugurated as Liberia’s President on January 22.
He is the first professional sportsman in the continent to ascend to the highest office in his country. Weah only has had two careers – football and politics and in each of them, he has scaled the highest summit.
You cannot earn a higher individual accolade in football than to be voted the Fifa World Footballer of the Year and winner of the Ballon d’Or – the European Footballer of the Year.
Weah won these titles in 1995, becoming the only African so far to claim them. In 1989, 1994 and 1995, he was voted African Footballer of the Year. It was thus not surprising that in the closing years of the 20th century in 1996, enough experts voted him African Player of the Century. You can’t get better than that.
In politics, you cannot go higher than to be elected president of your country in a free and fair poll accepted by your opponents. He just has.
Weah was the giant upon whose shoulders Liberia’s national team, the Lone Star, stood. They fell woefully short of his abilities and never once qualified for the Fifa World Cup.
But he did his best to help them. He was their captain on the pitch and their inspirational big brother off it who used the earnings from his exploits in Europe to bankroll them in their fruitless campaigns for Africa Nations Cup and World Cup glory. He did most of this during Liberia’s darkest civil war period.
Liberia’s failed efforts consigned Weah to a special league of the world’s greatest footballers never to play in a World Cup. That league has among them stars such as Northern Ireland’s George Best, Ghana’s Abedi Pele and Wales’ Ian Rush.
Hugh McIllvaney once described Northern Ireland’s travails when an injured George Best couldn’t play in a critical European Nations qualifier thus:
“The sight of Best hobbling on crutches from his hospital bed to take his place on the stands would have been enough to lift Irish morale.” In the case of Weah, I think such a sight would have been enough to lift Liberia from the dead.
Weah’s is an extraordinary achievement for a deprived child who hailed from the desperately impoverished Grand Kru County of Liberia’s south east.
The son of a mechanic father and small-scale trader mother learnt the ropes of football in Monrovia’s tough streets where his extra-ordinary speed with the ball first became evident.
He buried himself in the game and never finished high school. But a famous coach named Arsene Wenger would soon notice that speed and that talent and sign him for Monaco. The rest is history:
Weah has invited Wenger to his presidential inauguration after clearing all obstacles in a journey that could put fiction to the shade. This odyssey includes a losing presidential bid on account of not having a university degree.
At this stage, of course, we cannot tell how Weah might use football in particular or sport in general to uplift the lot of his people. We cannot yet know the size of his ambition.
The world’s sports industry is worth some $91 billion this year: what portion of that might be in his sights? Will he even attempt to go in that direction? Things change and it doesn’t automatically follow that one will take the glittering career of one’s youth into the senior years.
But anybody who has been to that neighbourhood – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and seen its beauty and poverty, its potential and its threats, would be surprised if he didn’t try to use the power of what he knows best to turn around its sorry fortunes.
When, for instance, Ebola hit, Liberia was utterly helpless; only foreign assistance could save it. It also has a massive unemployment and poverty problem. And yet Africa’s oldest republic, besides its enormous mineral and agricultural potential, has an impressive human resource base from which Weah could tap.
Weah’s success has given us a chance to look into what people with a sports background and who have occupied State House have done with it.