George Weah: From Soccer Turf to Presidency

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He changed the African story in a sense by becoming the continent’s first and only son to win the FIFA World Player of the Year (Ballon d’Or), the equivalent of a Nobel laureate in football. Can he rescript Liberia’s socio-political development story – incidentally, the first African nation to proclaim her freedom in 1847?  Louis Achi looks at the feisty 51-year old legend, George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah, now Liberia’s president-elect 

F orty-four hours ago, Liberia’s National Election Commission (NEC) announced soccer legend George Weah as the winner of Liberia’s presidential run-off, beating Vice President Joseph Boakai in the first democratic transfer of power in decades following two devastating civil wars. This development puts the nimble, towering former football striker on course to replace incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took over at the helm of Africa’s oldest republic in 2006.
According to NEC, Weah had polled an insurmountable 61.5 percent of Tuesday’s vote, which was delayed several weeks after a legal challenge from Vice President Boakai. The electoral body further explained that with 98.1% percent of all votes counted, Boakai had secured only 38.5% support.
Weah, candidate of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) scored 720,023 votes, while the incumbent vice president and candidate of the ruling Unity Party, Joseph Boakai, scored 451,088, which is 38.5 percent of the total vote cast, according to NEC.
Before the official results were announced yesterday, Weah tweeted: “The Liberian people clearly made their choice… and all together we are very confident in the result of the electoral process.” Weah topped the first round of voting in October with 38.4 percent of ballots but failed to win the 50 percent necessary to avoid a run-off. Boakai came second with 28.8 percent.
Ravaged by a long-drawn war, Liberia currently suffers serious infrastructural deficit. The emerging consensus is that it is in dire need of a leader that can consolidate on the gains of outgoing leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is stepping down in January. President-elect Weah apparently lacks any illusions concerning the bracing task ahead. His words on December 11, shortly after the New African Magazine named him among 100 Most Influential Africans of 2017 captures this awareness. “I will put all my strength, my energy, my sincerity and my influence at the service of the Liberian people.”

Meanwhile, in a reconciliatory, nationwide broadcast from his party’s headquarters in Monrovia yesterday, that essentially echoed former President Goodluck Jonathan’s statesmanlike concession to Buhari, Vice President Boakai, flanked by his supporters and party leaders, said he had already called President-elect Weah to congratulate him. His words: “I, Joseph Boakai, a man of peace, humility and with a deep faith in God hereby accept the results of the elections as announced by the National Elections Commission (NEC). I congratulate Ambassador Weah and pray that God will guide and empower him as takes the onerous responsibility of steering the affairs of our nation.

“Even though I will not be the captain of the ship, it is my fervent desire that the ship of state always sails smoothly. We must work to unite our people because Liberia is bigger than all of us. My ambition to serve will never push me to stoop too low to violence. The truth of the matter is that what I was seeking was not power or title but instead the opportunity to serve.’’

The Man Weah…
He was known for his close ball control and devastating, cheetah-like sprints on the football pitch. His high-intensity mode of play had overwhelmed countless defenders and made goal scoring appear like a picnic. His sheer speed and bulk appeared irreconcilable until untangling the apparent contradiction came too late for reputable goal tenders. Fourteen years after retiring from active soccer, he clinched the apex political job of his country Liberia – the presidency.

No less a child of providence, he was born on October 1, 1966 and started his footballing career in Liberia. The current Arsenal of England coach Arsene Wenger brought him to Europe where he signed for Monaco in 1988. He then moved on to French soccer giant PSG in 1992. He won the French League in 1994 and became the top scorer of the 1994-95 UEFA Champions League. In 1995, he signed for Italian giants AC Milan, after they had lost the Champions League final of that year to Ajax, where he spent four successful seasons, and won the Italian Serie A twice.
Looking ahead, Weah moved to England towards the end of his career and had spells at Chelsea and Manchester City, before returning to France to play for Marseille in 2001. He subsequently ended his career with Al-Jazira in the UAE 2003. At international level, he represented Liberia at the African Cup of Nations on two occasions.
Throughout his momentous career, Weah proved he was not an ordinary footballer. He is still the one and only player ever to hold the African, European and World diadem for the best footballer at the same time (1995). For Weah there are so many firsts. He will become the first ever world footballer of the year to become president of a country. Former President Goodluck Jonathan, one of the observers of the Liberian run-off election told the BBC that though there were some challenges, he was sure the result would be fair to all contestants. Noted Jonathan: “The ballot box has replaced bullets and electoral disputes are settled through the courts.”
King George, as he is fondly called while playing for Liberia in the throes of civil war, single-handedly picked up the bills of the national football team and almost led them to the 2002 World Cup – they were beaten to the ticket by Nigeria by one point.
Since joining the political terrain in 2005, Weah has been told he cannot win mainly because of a lack of education. To transcend that perceived deficit, he secured a Business Administration degree from the DeVry University in 2011 and for good measure added a Master’s degree in Management from the Keller Graduate School of Management in 2013.
He told the Voice of America in 2011 that education alone should not be the caveat for leadership. “There are lots people that went into leadership and they don’t even have a college degree. But, I know that I am a good leader, and I am waiting for the opportunity to one day lead that country.”
As the Ronaldos and Messis savour the triumph of their worthy predecessor in the dribble-score business, the more sedate soccer pundits ponder the political trajectory of this African legend. Meanwhile for ordinary Liberians, it maybe morning yet on creation day!