From Ballon D’Or To President The rise and rise of Liberia’s George Weah

George Weah has added the Liberian Presidency to his African, European and World Best Player achievements, but his rise didn’t look realistic when he began his football career on the dusty pitches of Monrovia, writes Emmanuel Ayamga.

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Over 20,000 fans watched on as Tonnerre Kalara football club of Yaoundé hosted Liberian side Invincible Eleven at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Cameroon.

It was in 1987. Both teams commanded cult status at the time and were also defending champions of their respective leagues.

READ ALSO: Kwesi Nyantakyi joins CAF contingent at George Weah ’s swearing-in

But all the attention was on a 20-year-old who many Cameroonians had heard of but were yet to see in action. This prodigy had taken over Liberia with his dazzling performances, but he was untested outside the shores of the then war-torn West African country.

tonn.jpg play George Weah in his formative years as a teenager.

 

However, here he was on Central African soil, up against a passionate, roaring crowd and a tactically disciplined Tonnerre side that had won the Cameroonian Premier League three times in the previous six years.

If the stakes were high for both teams, the pressure was much higher for the young man at the center of it all. But he embraced it, warmed himself to the game, carefully picked his moments, majestically wooed the crowed with his trickery and, ended up stealing the show with two wonderful strikes that gave Invincible Eleven the win.

That was a young George Oppong Weah!

The young Clara Town native made a huge impression that Tonnerre's president Pierre Semengue could not overlook and immediately asked of his availability.

After watching him for just 90 minutes, Semengue was convinced that Weah would be a good fit at Tonnerre and quickly signed him to the Yaoundé-based club.

"When he arrived, the first match he played was against Canon. He scored two goals,” Semengue recalled in an interview with DW.

ton.jpg play When Weah signed for Tonnerre de Yaounde of Cameroon.

Indeed, there was more to come as Weah scored 14 goals in 18 games to help Tonnerre win the league and cup double – the latter of which then Cameroon president Paul Biya watched on from the stands with amazement as Weah pulled all the strings in attack.

This was in Weah’s sole season in the Cameroonian topflight (1987-88), but his exploits meant he had left an indelible mark on all football fans in the Central African country. Whiles most Cameroonians saw in him a rough diamond starring at greatness, others saw the new Roger Milla.

READ ALSO: Football lessons that can make George Weah as a   successful president

He was subsequently named Le Roi, which translates as The King. Soon, the next step was nigh and Europe came calling. Monaco it was!

The European Dream

Weah’s sole season in the Cameroonian league appeared to have been the springboard to his European dream coming true.

Whiles starring with Tonnerre, then Cameroon national team coach Claude Leroy took notice of the Liberian’s talent and immediately recommended him to officials of French side AS Monaco.

Initially there was reluctance as the Monaco hierarchy did not really see Weah as a player who could cut it out in Europe.

However, Arsene Wenger – the manager of Monaco at the time – had other ideas and persisted on giving the much talked about youngster a chance.

weah wenger.jpg play Arsene Wenger took Weah to Europe when he was manager of Monaco.

The Frenchman was so keen that he personally traveled to Africa in 1988 to ensure the move was completed. So Weah became a Monaco player, with the Principality club offering to part ways with £12,000 for his services.

The boy from the slums had finally realised his dream of playing in Europe, but he wanted more. Rather than being content with playing alongside superstars like Glenn Hoddle and Emmanuel Petit, Weah wanted to be rated in the same league as the aforementioned duo.

In his young football career he was loved everywhere he played, and he wasn’t ready to give up that. Not even on his first shot at a European club.

Monaco's Liberian forward George Weah runs with th play A young Weah at Monaco (AFP/Getty Images)

The first six months were tougher than Weah ever expected. The French league was far different from what he was used to back in Africa. It was less physical, more tactical and demanded more pace. Weah could not compete and the bench became his sojourn.

“I just had a passion for the game and I worked hard. Everyday, I would rather train than eat or sleep,” Weah told the Guardian of his early months in France.

“When I moved to Monte Carlo [to play for Monaco from the Cameroonian club Tonnerre Yaoundé in 1988] I didn’t play for the first six months. But I was determined  to  showcase  my  talent , to  prove  to  those back home , who  thought  that  my  coming  to Europe was a waste of time, that I was a good p layer .”

That conviction to prove his doubters wrong soon developed into hunger, thanks to the guidance of Wenger. The Frenchman took him in and counseled him on how to get to the top of world football. Indeed, Weah regards the now Arsenal boss as a “father” and remembers fondly how the 68-year-old gave him protection during the difficult times.

READ ALSO: David Beckham to launch long-sought Miami MLS club

WENGER.jpg play Arsene Wenger guided Weah through his formative years

“He (Wenger) was a father figure and regarded me as his son. This was a man, when racism was at its peak, who showed me love. He wanted me to be on the pitch for him every day,” the Liberian told the Guardian.

“One day, I was quite tired of training and told him that I was having a headache.

“He said to me: ‘George, I know it’s tough but you need to work hard. I believe that with your talent, you can become one of the best players in the world.’

“So I listened and kept going on. Besides  God , I think  that  without Arsène, there was no way I would  have  made  it in Europe.”

Weah bade his time and when the opportunity came he grabbed it. He was given the number nine jersey and he never disappointed. At the end of the 1989 season we was adjudged the Best Player in Africa by France Football and was also voted the best Foreign player in Ligue 1.

In three years at Monaco Weah scored 47 goals and helped the club to win the Coupe de France, as well as reach the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Weah’s determination and zeal inspired many, including Thierry Henry was then developing in the Monaco youth sides.

“In the history of the game, I have never seen power and speed like George Weah," Henry said of Weah back in 2014.

He went on to play for Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Marseille before going for his last pay cheque in the UAE by joining Abu Dhabi side Al Jazira in 2001.

In his time with the aforementioned European clubs, his status as a global star continue to grow and the world’s eyes was finally opened to Weah’s unique talents.

READ ALSO: Akufo -­ Addo displays dancing skills at George Weah ’s inauguration

At PSG Le Roi won the French league, two more Coupe de France titles, a Coupe de la Ligue and helped the club to the semifinals of both the UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup.

On a personal level Weah netted 16 goals in 25 European games for the Parisians, including a wonder goal against Bayern Munich in the 1994/95 Champions League that is still very much etched in the minds of many football fans.

He also won the African Footballer of The Year award for the second time in 1994 following his sterling performances with PSG.

Before 1995 Weah had conquered France too and decided to join AC Milan in the Italian Serie A. At Milan, he won everything there was to win, including the League, the African Footballer of The Year for the third time, the Ballon d’Or, the FIFA Best Player and the Onze d’Or.

Rising from the slums

Playing in Cameroon was a stepping stone for Le Roi, however, back home in Monrovia and across Liberian his countrymen already knew the kind of talent Weah possessed.

In the early 1980s when a young Weah joined the Young Survivors Youth Club in the third-tier of Liberian football, not many believed he would go on to conquer the world. Growing up in Clara Town, one of the poorest cities in Southern Liberia, things were never easy. But all Weah wanted to do was to play football. He and his age-mates would weave their own footballs with whatever fabric they could find and not even the dusty, grassless pitches in Monrovia could stop them.

A girl stands in a back street in Clara Town near an election poster for Weah in August 2005. play

A girl stands in a back street in Clara Town near an election poster for Weah in August 2005.

(Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

As one of 13 children being taken care of by his grandmother, even money for upkeep was a huge problem. As a result he had to drop out in the final year of middle school.

Playing on the streets of Clara Town was all that was left. But Weah took that very seriously. He dreamed and hoped for a day when he could make a career out of football.

A chance to play for Young Survivors kickstarted that dream, but not without its challenges. Weah had to adapt quickly from the each-one-for-himself play on the streets to a team player playing for a lower division club.

The transition was slow, testing and sometimes rowdy, yet Weah continued working his way up the ladder – in humility and in conventionality.

But the signs were already on the wall and it was only a matter of time before the skinny boy won over his doubters. The then 16-year-old was so good that his colleagues at Young Survivors usually used him as a yardstick to measure their own outputs.

Even as a teenager with no nurturing from an academy Weah completely stood out whenever he had the ball at his feet: talk of dribbling and shooting skills.

READ ALSO: Mohamed Salah ranked most popular African player on Social Media

Within a few months the skinny teenager who arrived at the club by chance became a crowd favourite and helped a managerless Young Survivors team to qualify into the Liberian First Division.

His wonderful displays for Young Survivors did not go unnoticed. He soon earned himself a first move to the Liberian topflight, where he signed for Mighty Barrolles in the summer of 1985. Weah was one of the youngest in the side, but his confidence was unmatched.

Playing among far older colleagues in the Liberian Premier League did not intimidate him at all; rather it inspired him to continue to prove his worth.

Weah spent just a season with the Barrolles, but it was one that had left a lasting impression. At 19 he was already a regular, helping the side to a league and cup double during his one-year stint with the club.

But there was more to come.

Blighted by confusion as a result of turmoil borne out of war, many Liberians only had the local league to thank as a source of entertainment. Coincidentally, that period marked the rise of Weah, who was gradually becoming a local favourite due to his impressive performances.

Gradually, he warmed himself to the locals, and by the time he joined Invincible Eleven – bitter rivals to his previous club, Mighty Barrolles – all of Liberia began to take notice of the country’s rising star.

The fledgling, yet glowing Weah completely swept away the local scene. In 23 games for the Yellow Boys he scored an astonishing 24 goals. And that, for a then 20-year-old. His goals helped the Invincible Eleven to win the Liberian Premier League – Weah’s second in succession following his earlier triumph with the Barrolles the previous season. That season he was the top scorer in the Liberian topflight and was subsequently crowned best player.

It was mission accomplished at home. Two Liberian Premier League titles, a league cup trophy, the top scorer award and the best player gong: Weah had paid his dues on the local front. And like a Baron in the Badlands his rise had just began. His greatness simply knew no boundary.

Ballon d’Or success

In 1995 AC Milan were on a pretty rough path with regards to European success. The Rossoneri had also just conceded the Serie A trophy to Juventus, so the red half of Milan needed to respond. And the response came in the transfer market that summer.

Milan president Silvio Berlusconi knew the club would lag behind if he didn’t bring in some of the finest talents available. In came Roberto Baggio and George Weah to beef up the attacking line of the San Siro outfit.

READ ALSO: Roger Federer wins 20 th Grand Slam title

Milan already boasted one of the best defensive units in the world, with manager Fabio Capello assembling the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Christian Panucci and Filippo Galli to marshal the back.

Baggio was undoubtedly the club’s marquee signing, but Weah became the tormentor-in-chief. The pair combined to deadly effect and terrorized defenses both in Italy and in Europe. Weah had pace, skill and his 6’2” stature meant it was almost impossible to dispossess him off the ball.

LeRoi emerged top scorer at Milan in his debut season, outshining Baggio and all the other big-name players in the team. He also helped the club to Serie A glory – their 15th overall at the time.

In less than 12 months Weah had already become a favourite at Milan; his name etched in the hearts and minds of many Milanisti.

His unmatched performances meant the Ballon d’Or was nigh, and Weah scooped the prestigious individual award in 1995, becoming the first, and so far only, African to do so. He later added the World Best Player and the African Footballer of The Year awards to his achievements that year.

It was a truly remarkable feat for the boy who started his football career kicking polythene-woven footballs in the slums of Monrovia.

The world was at Weah’s feet now: He made Liberians dream after seeing his potential, he mesmerized Cameroonians with his brilliance, he gave France magical moments and now he had just delivered the most impossible of impacts at Milan.

The only major trophy he could not lay his hands on, aside the World Cup, was the Champions League.

Indeed, Weah is widely regarded one of the best players never to have ever won the Champions League, despite his influence on the pitch.

Weah The Politician

George Oppong Weah has come a very long way. From his time training on the grassless, dusty pitches in the slums of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, the Clara Town native never let his guard down.

LeRoi bowed out of football in 2003 having won the African, European and World Best Player awards. But he was destined for far greater things. Despite putting Liberia on the map, Weah believed there was more he could offer his country. He had the passion to serve, to lead his people as president.

And so following the end of the second Liberian civil war, Weah announced his intention to run for president in the West African country. He formed the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and decided to contest Liberia’s seat of government in 2005.

READ ALSO: Ex -footballer, George Weah sworn in as Liberian President

However, not even his achievements as a footballer mitigated the challenges that came his way. Many people doubted his suitability, pointing to a lack of political experience and a deficiency in formal education. And with his rival, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, acquiring her education at the famous Harvard University, the odds were against Weah, a political novice.

But he swept aside all that negativity and continued with his political dream. Weah eventually lost in the 2005 elections, managing just 40.6% of the total votes, as against Sirleaf’s 59.4%, following a run-off.

The loss was a huge blow, but it inspired Weah to continue working hard – the only way he knows. He decided to go back to school to attain some formal education, whiles also seeking advice from legends like Nelson Mandela.

"When I had a conversation with Nelson Mandela many years ago, he told me that if I was called on to serve my country I must do the right thing. I am acting on that advice," Weah later revealed about the South African freedom fighter's influence on his political career.

In 2006 Weah obtained his high school diploma at the age of 40. He furthered studied for a bachelor's degree in business management and a master's in public administration at the DeVry University in Florida.

Gradually, Weah was enhancing his political reputation and his passion was endearing to the Liberian people.

In 2011 Weah took a second shot at Liberia’s seat of government, this time as vice presidential candidate to Winston Tuban, but again the CDC lost to the Unity Party’s Sirleaf.

Weah then decided to run for the position of senator of Montserrado County in 2014. This time his bid was successful and he was elected as senator after garnering a whopping 78% of the total votes.

But he still wanted more, and was unwilling to give up his bid to become president of Liberia.

He took his ambition a little further and again contested the 2017 presidential elections on the ticket of the CDC, choosing Jewel Howard Taylor, senator for Bong county and former wife of the ousted president Taylor, as his running mate.

In a very huge upset, Weah took the lead in the first round of the elections, amassing 38% of the votes.

I think the life of George Weah is a real film, it’s unbelievable. You can make a fantastic film. All my life, I remember when I saw him the first time in Monaco, coming a bit lost, not knowing anybody, not being rated by anybody as a player and after, in 1995 becoming the best player in the world and today being president of his country, it’s an unbelievable story,Arsene Wenger remarked, as he reflected on Weah's journey so far. 

A run-off was held on December 26 and Weah finally realised his dream of becoming president of Liberia, beating Johnson-Sirleaf's vice president, Joseph Boakai with over 60% of the votes.

On January 22, 2018, Weah was sworn in as President of Liberia at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex, in Monrovia.

It is a success story that many still find very hard to understand. Perhaps Weah’s former coach and current manager of Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, explained it best when he described the Liberian’s journey as “a film”.

“I have spent many years of my life in stadiums, but today is a feeling like no other. I am overwhelmed with the crowd and the energy here today, and I guarantee you, when we finish, there will not be a winning or a losing side. Today, we all wear the jersey of Liberia, and the victory belongs to the people, to peace, and to democracy,” Weah said at his inauguration.

Weah’s last line was very catchy, but what he failed to add was that his victory is not just for Liberians, but for all who aspire to rise against the odds no matter their backgrounds.

When Le Roi started in the slums of Clara Town, Monrovia, not many would have predicted such a rise after 51 years of his life.

But today, Weah stands as the cornerstone, having become African, European and World Best Player; and now President of Liberia.

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