Latest Channel 4 News:
Row over Malaysian state's coins
'Four shot at abandoned mine shaft'
Rain fails to stop Moscow wildfires
Cancer blow for identical twins
Need for Afghan progress 'signs'

Political Football: George Weah

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 25 January 2008

As the 2008 Africa Nations Cup gathers pace, Liberia's George Weah leads the line in Simon Kuper's Political Football first XI.

"He know book, he not know book, we will vote for him." As election slogans go, that one could only be Liberian. The supporters of George Weah - very nearly the first footballer to become president of his country - chanted this before the elections of October 2005.

<i>George Weah in the aftermath of the 2005 Liberian election (credit: Getty)</i>

George Weah in the aftermath of the 2005 Liberian election (credit: Getty)

Though Weah lost, he has helped his country shed the unofficial title of worst state in the world. As the African Nations Cup gets going, he joins our political footballers' XI. He will play up front beside the late Austrian Mattias Sindelar.

Weah never got much chance to "learn book". Liberia's educated elite are mostly the descendants of the freed American slaves who came to the country from 1822.

Weah, like most Liberians, descends from darker-skinned people who never left Africa. He grew up poor, one of 13 siblings, and was raised by his grandma in a slum in the capital Monrovia. He became a vagabond, a gang member.

'World's worst place to live'

Football got him out of the country - first to a club in Cameroon, later to Europe. In 1995 he was voted world footballer of the year. He ended up living in New York and commuting to training sessions in Marseille by Concorde.

Weah was that rare Liberian, a millionaire who made his money honestly and who sent money to the country instead of taking it out.

His playing career coincided almost exactly with Liberia's worst years of invasions and civil war, from 1989 to 2003.

Perhaps 250,000 of Liberia's three million inhabitants were killed, including Weah's brother Bobby. There were reports of football matches played with human skulls. In 2003 the Economist named Liberia as the world's "worst place to live". The average Liberian man dies at 41, the age Weah is now.

Weah was for a long time about the only international reminder that being Liberian could be a source of pride not shame, a rare Liberian millionaire who made his money honestly, and certainly the only one who sent money to the country instead of taking it out.

'King' George

For years he funded the national team more or less as his private charity. He bought the kit and everything else, and in return, kept out players he didn't like.

The football team, for all its faults, was Liberia's only half-respected national institution. No wonder that as the British sociologist Gary Armstrong writes, in 1998 there was only one statue in Monrovia: a bronze of Weah on Broad Street, the town's main drag.

In these years Weah was often asked if he would enter politics. He always said no. That was a wise answer. Liberia's then ruler, the gangster Charles Taylor, didn't like other politicians.

When Weah suggested that the United Nations intervene in Liberia, Taylor's thugs burned down his beach house.

But then Taylor fled to Nigeria. Elections were held, and Weah ran on the platform of being the national hero. He spent much of the campaign receiving supplicants from a carved throne in his compound off Monrovia's Rehab Road, wearing reflecting sunglasses, with the word "King" inscribed above his head.

Email us your Political Football suggestions

Simon Kuper is in the process of nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.

But we want to know who you would include. It doesn't have to be an entire team (although that would be fascinating) - just a player for whom life has meant more than a mansion in Belgravia and a fleet of 4x4s.

Email your suggestions to Channel 4 News by clicking here.

Critics pointed out that he had barely any policies. Yet the mockery was misguided. Weah's pleas to end the violence seemed sincere. Unlike most of the other candidates, he hadn't been a tribal warlord, and hadn't even killed anyone. Nor did he need the presidency to "eat money", as Liberians call it.

In fact, the post seemed an odd one for a multimillionaire living in the US to want at all. One previous incumbent, William Tolbert, was bayoneted in bed, while another, Samuel Doe, had his ear chopped off on video before bleeding to death in the bath.

After losing the election, Weah performed his greatest service yet to Liberia: he gave up.

Weah was long expected to win the election, but lost the run-off to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who had "learned book" at Harvard. It was remarkable he got even that far, given that he didn't meet the unofficial minimum educational requirement to run a country.

After losing, Weah said the vote was rigged: "We have to be courageous because we have not lost the election." His party filed a writ, and its supporters, some of them former child soldiers, demonstrated and threw stones.

But then Weah performed his greatest service yet to Liberia: he gave up. It would have been so easy to return the country to its infighting. Instead Johnson-Sirleaf took office, Weah praised her, and his party entered opposition. He now lives mostly in Florida.

General Butt Naked...

Meanwhile Liberia is turning into an actual democracy. Only the other day, after Johnson-Sirleaf won the right to appoint mayors, Weah's party appealed to Liberia's Supreme Court. All very boring, all very good.

Better yet, Charles Taylor is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes. A former rebel commander known as General Butt Naked (his troops charged naked into battle) has just testified to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the country spent 14 years in literal darkness, some electricity has now been restored. Liberia is no longer the worst state on earth; Somalia probably is.

Weah might just get to be president one day if Johnson-Sirleaf stumbles, but probably not. However, it's likely that other football people will follow him into politics. (And other sportsmen. One of Weah's examples, besides Nelson Mandela, was the former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Silvio Berlusconi has already managed to govern Italy partly off the back of having done a good job running AC Milan.

Football people have greater name recognition now than ever before, while voters are turning away from established parties and traditional politicians. Weah may yet leave a legacy.

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times

Channel 4 News Political Football XI (so far)

Defence Franz Beckenbauer
Midfield Walter Tull, Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona, Zvonomir Boban
Forwards Matthias Sindelar, George Weah


Send this article by email

More on this story

Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Watch the Latest Channel 4 News

Watch Channel 4 News when you want

Latest news

Channel 4 © 2010. Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.