Football hero George Weah scores big goals in politics

Mr George Weah on the campaign trail last month.
Mr George Weah on the campaign trail last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

A high-school dropout who rose above poverty to play football for top-flight teams, Liberia's newly elected President George Weah leveraged his rags-to-riches story on the campaign trail to engineer the country's first democratic transition of power.

Born and raised in the Clara Town slum in Monrovia, where 75,000 residents once shared 11 public toilets, Mr Weah wasted no time in acknowledging his win after unofficial results last week gave him a comfortable margin.

"My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace. Change is on," he posted on Twitter.

Mr Weah, 51, is of the Kru ethnic group, which hails from the south-eastern Grand Kru County, one of Liberia's poorest areas. He was raised by his paternal grandmother and attended Wells Hairston High School before dropping out.

He is the only African footballer to have been named the Fifa World Player of the Year and to receive the coveted Ballon d'Or - a feat he accomplished in 1995, the same year he won the African and European Footballer of the Year titles. Fifa also named him African Player of the Century in 1996.

In 2004, he was listed as one of the 100 greatest living footballers by Brazilian football legend Pele.

Idolised in Liberia as "Mister George", Mr Weah played for European giants Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s, before stints at British clubs Chelsea and Manchester City near the end of his 15-year career.

But it was his time with Monaco, where his international career began in 1988, that left a deep impact. He credited his coach at the time, Arsene Wenger, for helping him to realise his potential.


  • OCT 1, 1966: Born in Monrovia, Liberia

    1988-2003: Professional footballer who becomes the only African to be named Fifa World Player of the Year, and win the Ballon d'Or

    2005: Defeated by Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in presidential polls

    2011: Beaten for vice presidency

    DEC 2014: Elected senator

    OCT 10, 2017: Leads first round of presidential race with 38.4 per cent of votes against Vice-President Joseph Boakai

    DEC 28, 2017: Wins run-off with 61.5 per cent of the vote

"He was a father figure and regarded me as his son. This was a man, when racism was at its peak, who showed me love," Mr Weah told The Guardian newspaper. "Besides God, I think that without Arsene, there was no way I would have made it in Europe."

He never competed in a World Cup because Liberia was engulfed by civil war at the height of his footballing years.

After retiring from football in 2003, Mr Weah entered politics.

He first sought the presidency in 2005, but lost in the run-off to Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

In the 2011 election, when Mr Weah sought to become vice-president, he lost again. He was elected to the Senate in 2014 to represent Montserrado, the country's largest senatorial district.

"I know 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 why they do the same," Mr Weah told The Guardian ahead of the run-off on Dec 26. "I am called to service for the love of my country and the love of my people."

One of the major negatives against Mr Weah in 2005 - his lack of a proper education - was no longer a concern. In 2006, he obtained his high school diploma, at the age of 40. He went on to DeVry University in Florida to obtain a bachelor's degree in business management in 2011, before obtaining a master's degree in public administration two years later.

Mr Weah, who is married to an American of Jamaican-origin, and has three children, has a net worth reported to be around US$85 million (S$113 million).

His campaign was not free of controversy - most notably on account of his choice of Ms Jewel Howard-Taylor as his vice-president. She is the ex-wife of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year jail sentence in Britain for war crimes.

Support for Mr Weah's campaign from another former warlord, Prince Johnson, also raised more than a few eyebrows.

And one of his opponents in the election, former girlfriend MacDella Cooper, claimed he is the father of her third child.

Now that he is in power, Mr Weah has no doubt that his lustre in the eyes of his supporters could wane if he fails to deliver.

"I don't want to promise things to the people that I cannot do but I certainly want to leave a legacy… If you fail to deliver, they have every right to remove you from office," he said. "But I will never betray the trust of my people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Football hero George Weah scores big goals in politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe