George Weah: from football star to national saviour

George Weah faces a huge new challenge as president of the Republic of Liberia. Will the former Fifa World Player of the Year be able to fix the country’s problems? Jane Lewis reports.

“I have spent many years of my life in stadiums, but today is a feeling like no other,” observed George Weah – once the world’s greatest footballer – as he was sworn in as president of Liberia last month. You can say that again, says The Sun. The country “is going bonkers”. Thousands queued to witness the inauguration in “a frenzied, carnival atmosphere in the capital Monrovia”.

It says “expectations are sky-high” that Weah will deliver on his promises of more jobs and schools. More than 60% of Liberians are under 25 and youth unemployment is put as high as 85%. To supporters, Weah is nothing short of a national saviour and role model combined.

How Mandela inspired Weah

Plenty of others are rather more cautious about Weah’s chances of transforming a west African nation “still coming to terms” with the civil war of the 1990s and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, which both “ravaged its very fragile economy”, says The Guardian. Governance proved “a huge challenge” for outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who spent 12 years trying to put Liberia right. And Sirleaf is a Harvard-trained economist. What difference can a mere soccer player make? 

“A lot of people wonder why an ex-footballer should seek the presidency of the country, but no-one asks a lawyer or a businessman,” says Weah, who is “clearly irked by critics”. He claims that having first sought the presidency in 2005, when he lost to Sirleaf, he’s put the intervening years to good use.

Having obtained his high school diploma in 2006, aged 40, he went on to obtain a US degree in business management, followed by a masters in public administration. His subsequent election to the Liberian Senate in 2014 has also provided a “valuable learning experience”, he says. “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.”

From Monrovia to Monaco

Weah made his name at European football clubs including AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City, says Fergal Keane on the BBC website. But he got his start in far more humble circumstances. Raised in the slums of Monrovia, he developed “a passion” for football: “I would rather train than eat or sleep”. His big break came in 1988 when he was talent-spotted by Monaco and moved to Monte Carlo. The coach there was the current Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger.

“He was a father figure and regarded me as his son.” One reason for Weah’s “phenomenal popularity” in Liberia – founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century – is his “personal slum-to-stardom story”, says the Financial Times. Another is that “he had the perfect alibi as the country descended into mayhem in the 1990s: he was not there”. Weah was “cementing” a soccer reputation in Europe that culminated in Fifa naming him World Player of the Year in 1995. Even so, his “reputation as a man who can work miracles will be sorely tested by the situation he inherits”.