The story of George Weah’s rise from poverty and hopelessness to soccer stardom and up to becoming president of Liberia is well documented throughout the world as an inspiration for those at the lower rungs of the ladder to ponder the popular expression that “Wonders shall never end.” Weah’s search for the Liberian leadership commenced in 2005 when he lost to the proverbial ‘iron lady’ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But previous to that he had exhibited some level of interest in the presidency, even during the administration of jailed former president Charles Taylor, who had once pointed out Weah’s intention for the country’s top job. Though people’s reaction to Taylor’s revelation was rather shocking, in the end Taylor proved prophetic.
Of course, keen observers of Weah’s meteoric rise to leadership may remember when he (Weah) assumed the leadership of the National Football Team but might not have realized or foreseen a role for him in national politics. After all Liberian footballers in the 60’s and 70’s were described as ‘grona,’ a pejorative expression.
This was largely so because most soccer players at the time were generally perceived as uneducated since they hailed from poor families in the slum communities around the country with no future to look forward to after their careers. Discouraging reports of footballers dying in poverty abound – too depressing to recount in this article.
Truth be told, many talented footballers in the 60’s and 70’s died unsung and unrecognized, including goalkeeper David Momoh, who was reported to have turned down offers to play professional football in England.
It is said because of widely held perceptions at the time that such a move to the UK would be considered unpatriotic, Momoh opted to remain with the national football team. In later years, according to reports, he became an alcoholic and met his untimely end in an inglorious fashion right on Broad Street. It was some sympathizers, according to reports, that gathered his remains for burial.
Another player was Jackson Weah, famous for his scissors kick, who had been encouraged to return from Ghana, to where his parents had emigrated. He played sterling roles on the national football team. He later died as a pauper virtually unrecognized by the Government of Liberia for his patriotism and service to country.
Until Weah’s emergence on the soccer scene (the 80’s upwards), majority of Liberian footballers did not possess high academic credentials, and therefore at the end of their football playing days, and finding little else to do, ended up as indigents.
Some of such players included Sylvester Weah (popularly known as “St. Joseph Ray”) of St. Joseph Warriors, whose funeral Ambassador George Weah was reported to have attended and made the remark: “That’s how footballers die in Liberia.”
His poignant observation came after Ambassador Weah was told that there was no official from the government; that is, the Ministry of Youth & Sports, at the funeral program, besides a wreath sent from the ministry to honor his memory. Sylvester Weah had been sick, and had cried out for help that did not materialize.
Another former player, still alive, is goalkeeper William Wleh, formerly of St. Joseph Warriors and Lone Star. Wleh, now an amputee, begs for survival in New Kru Town.
Growing up in New Kru Town and later in Clara Town, a similar fate might have awaited George Weah if Providence had not intervened.
Additionally, there were many prominent Liberians who were then interested in soccer and were prepared to assist in many ways to develop Weah’s generation of footballers, which included James Salinsa Debbah, Jonathan Sogbie, among others. Those prominent men also used their connections and contacts to provide means to make the players more appreciated.
Among such persons were Sam Burnette (SB), Christopher Neyor, Paul E. Mulbah, Lawrence M. Doe, Archie F. Bernard, among others. Either by accident or fate, the 80s saw the emergence of popular support to footballers, particularly when Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe took over the country in a military coup d’état and later assuming the leadership of the Liberia Football Association as its chairman.
It must be pointed out that while there are rules against officials meddling in a country’s football association’s leadership, President Samuel Doe though served as chairman but stayed in the background and allowed sports administrators to run the show; and as a result, he did not draw any negative attention from either CAF or FIFA.
Willis D. Knuckles, Jr. was then appointed as vice chairman of the LFA; Paul E. Mulbah as Chief of Operations; and Marcel E. Bertin, Secretary-General, among many others. Until Doe’s assumption as chairman of the LFA, there was no regular league season for many of the teams that were in the country.
Putting his organizational skills to work, Willis D. Knuckles, Jr., a master organizer, brought to life the regular league that in the end produced winners and their most talented players. It was during the execution of the league that George Oppong Weah and his contemporaries were identified. Through President Doe, the national team, Lone Star, including Weah, visited Brazil on a training tour.
Heading the 3rd division’s Union of the Liberia Football Association Sub-committee (ULFASCOM) was Mr. Assamady Kabba of the then Central Monrovia LFA Sub-Committee. Other members included M. La-Marks Kerdoe of the Logan LFA Sub-Committee and representatives from the West-Clara LFA Sub-Committee and other sub-committees across Monrovia.
Young Survivors FC participated in the 3rd Division at the West Clara LFA Sub-committee where a lanky striker, known in the community as George Oppong Weah, and teammate Joe Nagbe emerged. In fact, Edwin Volawuo of Bong Range United (BRU) in his persistent search for players had stumbled upon George Oppong Weah that led Weah to play for the club. It was N’daborlor Saingbe, now secretary to the Liberian Senate, who signed his official transfer from Bong Range United to Invincible Eleven(IE).
Weah was always available to play for his team (Bong Range United FC) whenever he came to Bong Mines, Volawuo said. At the time, young footballers traveled across the country to play friendly matches to earn honorariums and sometimes to play for free and for the love of the game.
Of course, the annual County Sports Meet which was initiated in 1956 by President William Tubman as his unification strategy to bring the country together was one of the effective means to identify young talented footballers from the countryside. Players like Ezekiel Doe (Zico) of Invincible Eleven fame who played in the 80’s, and another Invincible Eleven player, known then as ‘Break Dancer’ (Robert Clarke), emerged onto the national scene from a County Meet engagement.
From Young Survivors FC, Weah decided to join Mighty Barrolle but because there was fierce competition among the players, he chose instead to join their rivals, the Invincible Eleven Majesty Sports Association. With Willis D. Knuckles, Jr., supported by President Samuel Doe, the organization of association football began in earnest and successful leagues were held.
Regrettably, Knuckles would resign his position as vice chairman of the LFA because of “Policy differences” with President Doe who later appointed Cletus S. Wotorson to replace him. Wotorson had been running effective leagues as chairman of the Liberia Basketball Federation.
As head of the new LFA executive committee, Wotorson decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the LFA in 1986. The LFA was organized in 1936. Wotorson’s LFA invited Fisheries of Sierra Leone and Tonnerre Klara of Yaounde, Cameroon to join Invincible Eleven and Mighty Barrolle for the celebration.
The LFA decided to invite the Cameroonian club simply because Mohammed Konneh, a Liberian who was living in that country wanted Liberian players to play in that league. Cameroon football was also at its peak, following Roger Miller’s impressive performance at the World Cup in 1982, when they drew all three group games and finished in the 17th position.
The celebration of the LFA’s 50th Anniversary, held sometime in 1997, was a blessing for George Weah, who was ever ready to play all their scheduled games. The Cameroonians at the end of the competition were convinced of what Mohammed Konneh had told them about Weah’s exceptional talent.
They were nevertheless disappointed not have seen at the time, Liberia’s Most Celebrated Player, James Debbah, in action. What was wrong with The Celebrated? “Well, he could not play the games because of injury,” admitted a long time follower of the game, a Barrolle fan.
So as injury kept Debbah out of the games, Weah took advantage of the situation and played his best. The Cameroonians afterward could not leave Weah back when they left for Yaounde. Weah had played for two seasons with Invincible Eleven in Liberia: 1985-86, 1986-87.
In Cameroon was Claude de Roy, the Frenchman who was the head coach of the Cameroonian national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions. He saw George Weah’s extraordinary skills and within a short time, recommended him to Arsene Wenger, who was then coaching AS Monaco in the French first division.
Weah played five seasons with AS Monaco (1987–92) and scored 57 goals. With Weah, Monaco won the French Cup in 1991. Weah’s ability to dribble and shoot the ball endeared him to the crowd wherever he played. In the end, he earned what was described as a ‘lucrative’ contract with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).
Weah led PSG to the French Cup, to the league title, and to the semi-finals of the 1995 European Champions League. He later transferred to AC Milan (1995–2000) in Italy’s Serie A, helping the club win their 1996 and 1999 league titles.
In January 2000, AC Milan loaned him to Chelsea of London, where he contributed to that team’s FA Cup victory. As his career drew to a close, he played for Manchester City and Marseilles in France. Weah is credited for scoring more goals and playing in more matches than any other African professional player in Europe.
Among his achievements in Europe included helping AC Milan to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup (1992-93), the Cup Winners’ Cup (1993-94) and the Champions League (1994-95). It was in 1995 that Weah enjoyed a real ‘Golden’ year when Milan took him to Serie A and growing from strength-to-strength under Fabio Capello.
A change in the rules to the Ballon d’Or voting meant that non-European players could be nominated for the first time and Weah defeated Jurgen Klinsmann and Jari Litmanen into first place. He finished ahead of Paolo Maldini to win the Fifa World Player of the Year award.
Admirably, Weah dedicated the award to Coach Arsene Wenger, claiming it was the Frenchman who made him into a world-class player. When the Liberian civil-war raged on, Weah made periodic visits to Liberian refugee communities across the West African sub-region and provided relief to thousands.
Weah showed interest to run for president of the LFA but was frustrated because he was not a president of any local club, as the rules indicated. It was later that he decided to run for the president of Liberia by organizing the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). In 2014, he stood for the Senatorial Race and won overwhelmingly to represent Montserrado County.
Now that Weah is elected President of Liberia, it can be said that success in life depends on an enabling environment, with corresponding support, individual determination and a little bit of luck to make all the difference.
And it is hoped that lessons of Weah’s life story could serve as a force to influence behavioral change among many of the youths, especially those at risk, at the very bottom of society who are called by a pejorative – ‘zogos.’