George Weah, the prodigal son of Liberia, returns to bid for presidency

He was the first African to become a truly international football legend - and the people of Liberia are hoping he will bring his golden touch to their troubled country.

After almost 20 years of global celebrity, the football star and all-round African hero, George Weah, has returned to his home country to launch a bid for the presidency.

"As you know, my people have petitioned me some time ago, so I have come to answer their petition," the former Fifa World Player of the Year and Chelsea striker told the thousands of devoted fans who turned out to welcome him on Wednesday. Mr Weah, who is one of 35 contenders standing in next autumn's elections, asked his countrymen to "pray so that God will bring peace, and stability and bring about unification" in their country.

Mr Weah told the crowds thronging around his motorcade that he was delighted to be home. He vowed to work for unity in his war-ravaged country and appealed to the people to ensure next year's vote is carried out democratically.

"During the electoral process, there will be different ideologies and beliefs," he explained on national radio yesterday. "But we must embrace each other and be harmonious in unifying Liberia through our love and tolerance."

What Mr Weah's speech lacked in solid policies it made up with rousing appeals. The 38-year-old sportsman is largely a political neophyte and received only a basic education - but he certainly knows how to carry the crowds.

"With your support, we can make it," he told the people, confidently. They, in turn, seem equally confident he will be the man to usher their struggling nation into a brighter future.

Weah, who along with being named the Fifa Player of the Year in 1995 and coaching the Liberian national side in the mid-1990s, also became a Unicef goodwill ambassador in 1997. Harnessing his global popularity to help causes such as the fight against Aids in Africa and the promotion of vocational training programmes to rehabilitate child soldiers, he has built up a reputation as a star with a deep social conscience, even earning the accolade of "The African Pride" from the former South African president, Nelson Mandela.

Unsurprisingly, many Liberians have come to regard him as the man who could lead the country to long-desired times of peace. Many of the supporters who turned out to meet him on Wednesday were wearing T-shirts proclaiming Weah "The People's Choice".

"I think he could become a good president because he's rich so he's not going to steal the country's money. And he has the country at heart," one fan told the Associated Press.

The quick-footed striker left the capital, Monrovia, at the age of 20 and went on to terrorise defences throughout Europe, playing for Paris St Germain, AC Milan, AS Monaco, Chelsea and Manchester City, before devoting his full attention to the Liberian national squad, which he coached and subsidised during the first years of his retirement.

But on his frequent trips to Liberia, he bore witness to his country's desperate slide into war and poverty.

The current interim government was formed when a deal with rebel fighters was made in 2003 and the warlord, Charles Taylor, was ousted.

Headed by popular entrepreneur Gyude Bryant, the temporary administration presides over a fragile peace still struggling to recover from 14 years of bloodshed. Fifteen thousand UN peacekeeping troops play a crucial role in a country still reeling from the deaths and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of its people.

Liberians are in no doubt of the importance of next October's vote; 35 people have already announced they will stand for president, with 15 parties registered to take part.

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