George Weah: favourite to win biggest battle - leading his country off the field

The signs are that the former World Footballer of the Year will succeed in his remarkable ambition of becoming President of Liberia.
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George Weah was always an extraordinary footballer and, less than two weeks into his campaign to become the next president of his homeland, Liberia, there is already evidence of an extraordinary political career ahead.

Whether it will be an extraordinarily good one or a terrible error for both Weah and his nation remains to be seen. But there is already a consensus throughout the impoverished west African state that by this time next year, Weah, 38, will have made the transition from lethal striker to fully fledged statesman.

Naturally, his campaign team expect him to win the popular vote, citing a triumphant cavalcade through the streets of the capital, Monrovia, a fortnight ago, as evidence. Tens of thousands of people lined his route from the airport sporting Weah T-shirts, beating drums and chanting for their saviour-elect.

"The politicians in this country have failed us, lied to us, killed our brothers and sisters," said one supporter, Louise Sorwon. "Our youths are suffering. They have no food to eat, no work to do. So Weah can deliver the goods."

Weah's campaign manager, James Kollie, speaking to The Independent yesterday, echoed that sentiment. "He can do the job, he is a leader to his generation and the people are behind him," he said. However, he acknowledged that his man had yet to outline a single firm policy, preferring to rouse support through a motto of "love and tolerance". He added: "But George's dream is to give the government back to the people, localise the government and equalise opportunities for everyone."

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Weah, Africa's most successful footballer ever, is in a strong position to exploit the reservoir of goodwill for his many charitable works to date.

"We've had people with PhDs who got into power and did nothing to benefit us," said Carl, a barber in downtown Monrovia. "Liberians are fed up with politicians. They've wrecked the country. We want someone different."

"We need somebody in Liberia who will listen. George Weah, we feel he can listen to the people," said Geraldine, an employee at the national oil company.

Most significantly for Weah's hopes, even those who are urging caution about his credentials acknowledge that he is the hot favourite. John Morlu, an expat Liberian now resident in America, is one questioning voice. Morlu founded the Liberian Institute for Public Integrity, a group that attempts to spread "unbiased news" about Liberia from outside their homeland, where the media is often a political tool. He was an early advocate of Weah, but now urges caution because of doubts over Weah's independence.

Some observers believe Weah may be a stooge for old-school Liberian politicians, and that there are certain to be questions raised about funding for his campaign, with whispers that a Dubai sheikh could mysteriously bankroll his candidacy to the tune of £200,000. Kollie happily confronted and dismissed such claims as "trash politics" yesterday and vowed that Weah would never accept "foreign money" for his campaign.

The brickbats are sure to continue between now and the vote, provisionally scheduled for October next year, when the current line-up of 43 candidates (and growing) will probably have been whittled down to four or five realistic contenders. Yet despite the expectation that Weah will have to go on the defensive and have his motivation questioned, Morlu concedes that Weah's mandate as a "youth candidate, nice guy and with lots of good work in his past" will in all likelihood propel him to victory. If there can be anything like a surefire winner so far ahead of the poll, Weah is it.

To many who have followed Weah's his career as a footballer such an outcome - remarkable though it is - would be entirely fitting. Weah has long demonstrated his commitment to put something back into a nation he left aged 20 to pursue football stardom in Europe, first at Monaco, under Arsène Wenger, and then at Paris St-Germain and Milan (where he was voted World and European Player of the Year in 1995), before brief, and rather less glorious spells at Chelsea and Manchester City.

He never lost touch with his roots, which saw him grow up in poverty, and largely uneducated, as one of 12 children to a mechanic father and street vendor mother. He began to accumulate a fortune through football, but was prepared to spend a decent portion of it in Liberia, much of it on charity projects for children.

He has also used his fame to promote Unicef, for whom he has been a goodwill ambassador for seven years. He has campaigned on Aids prevention, urged children to stay in school, and publicised the plight of child soldiers, of whom there have been countless thousands in a 15-year civil war that has been in fragile abatement since last year thanks to a UN peacekeeping force of 15,000.

Of Liberia's 3.1m people, 75 per cent are illiterate and have no access to safe water or sanitation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, including some 300,000 or now resident in America, still hope to return one day. America is where Weah's campaign is currently based ahead of a "team Weah" exodus to Liberia, planned for February.

If Weah's campaign is a success, the destinies of millions will fall into his hands and the hardest questions will start. As little as three years ago, in an interview with the BBC, he stated unequivocally that he had no desire ever to be a politician.

At the time he was based in America, commuting to Europe on Concorde to play football. Peculiarly, he stated that one of his ambitions had been to join the US Marine Corps, though he had shelved the idea because he was too old.

Instead his battles now are political, and according to Kollie he will welcome debate and even dissent. He will need to. As one of Weah's former Liberian team-mates, Dionysius Sebwe, wrote last week of Weah's time in charge of the national football team: "He ostracised or penalised those who disagreed with him." He added that under President Weah, Liberia could suffer from Weah's "ineptitude, poor leadership, and despotism".

Politics is not a beautiful game. Few doubt Weah will successfully enter the fray. But the aftermath is in doubt.

Career movers: sportsmen who have gone into politics

Idi Amin (Boxing)

Sporting Life: Ugandan heavyweight champion 1951-1960.

Political Career: Staged a brutal coup d'état in 1971 in Uganda. In 1979 Tanzanian troops invaded forcing him to exile to Saudi Arabia, where he died last year.

Pele (Football)

Sporting Life: Legendary triple World Cup winner (1958, 1962, 1970).

Political Career: Brazil's Minister of Sport from 1995-1998.

Sebastian Coe (Athletics)

Sporting Life: Former world record holder and Olympic gold medallist in the 1500m (1980).

Political Career: Tory MP 1992-97; Chief of staff to William Hague, 1997-2001. Head of London's 2012 Olympic Bid.

Imran Khan (Cricket)

Sporting Life: Brilliant all-rounder captained Pakistan to the 1992 World Cup.

Political Career: Chairman of Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Bodybuilder)

Sporting Life: Won five Mr Universe titles and Mr Olympia seven times.

Political Career: Elected Republican governor of California in October 2003.

Bill Bradley (Basketball)

Sporting Life: NBA's Hall of Fame after career with New York Knicks.

Political Career: Ran against Al Gore for the Democrat's 2000 US Presidential nomination.