“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,” Weah went on, clearly irked by critics who say he lacks the experience required to deal with the complexities of Liberia’s economic and social issues, which made governance a huge challenge for the outgoing president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard University-trained economist who won a share of the 2011 Nobel peace prize.
Weah first sought the presidency in 2005 but lost to Johnson Sirleaf in the runoff. That defeat, and his subsequent election to the Liberian Senate in 2014 – representing Montserrado County, the country’s largest senatorial district – has provided him with what he describes as a “valuable learning experience”.
“A lot of people felt that because I did not become the president [in 2005] that I had failed but for me, I had a good feeling … I see that experience as preparation for what I’m doing now. When I had a conversation with Nelson Mandela many years ago, he told me that if I was called on to serve my country I must do the right thing. I am acting on that advice.”
A major negative against Weah in 2005, particularly among the political elite, was the lack of a proper education but he has taken care of that over the past six years: he obtained his high school diploma in 2006, aged 40, and went on to DeVry University in Florida, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2011 and a master’s degree in public administration two years later.
Weah’s record in the senate, where he chairs the committee on sport, has been criticised by some Liberians, who claim his attendance and voting record, as well as his contribution to parliamentary debate, has been poor. “My responsibility has been to talk for my people, to discuss their interests … I have achieved a lot, my records are there and my people know my work,” he says in his defence.
Having been brought up in the slums of one of Monrovia’s poorest parts, overcoming obstacles is nothing new to Weah. “When I started playing football, I never thought I would ever win the Ballon d’Or and emerge as the best player in the world. I just had a passion for the game and I worked hard. Every day. I would rather train than eat or sleep.
“When I moved to Monte Carlo [to play for Monaco from the Cameroonian club Tonnerre Yaoundé in 1988] I didn’t play for the first six months. But I was determined to showcase my talent, to prove to those back home, who thought that my coming to Europe was a waste of time, that I was a good player.”
Arsène Wenger was Weah’s coach at Monaco. The relationship between them was anything but ordinary. “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. He wanted me to be on the pitch for him every day.
“One day, I was quite tired of training and told him that I was having a headache. He said to me: ‘George, I know it’s tough but you need to work hard. I believe that with your talent, you can become one of the best players in the world.’ So, I listened and kept going on. Besides God, I think that without Arsène, there was no way I would have made it in Europe.”
The time-consuming demands of politics have not dimmed his love for the game as he plays in a veterans’ league for the Alpha Old Timers every Saturday, as long as he is in Monrovia.
Criticism of his parliamentary record cuts no ice with Liberia’s overwhelmingly young population, who provide the core of Weah’s support. “The young ones see him as the messiah of our time,” says the former Arsenal striker Christopher Wreh, who is Weah’s cousin. “The people that have been in charge of the country for the last 12 years have let us down. We need a real change. I have no doubt that this is George Weah’s time to become the president of Liberia.”
However, other members of his own family, such as James Debbah – who is also a cousin and, after Weah, arguably Liberia’s most popular football personality – has had his doubts in the past. “I would be doing a lot of injustice if I vote for him,” the former Nice and PSG player said in August 2005. “My reason is that he does not have the necessary governmental experience. He will be brought to public ridicule, as he is a political novice who would not understand the intricacies of politics.”
Debbah’s warning did not go down well with Weah. “We did not speak for a very long time,” Debbah says. “It took the death of my mother for us to be reconciled. He came for the burial and then we began to talk again.”
When asked if he was supporting Weah’s second stab at the presidency, Debbah picked his words carefully. “There is no doubt George has a large following, particularly among the young people. He has a great chance.
“George has achieved a lot in football and the people love him for it. But should he become president of Liberia, the public will forget his performances on the football pitch and judge him by what he achieves in office. People in the country are yearning for change and want it very quickly. If he doesn’t deliver it, the people could turn on him. It is a big risk he is taking and I wish him well.”
Presidential careers have often been the graveyard of many sterling reputations, as Weah acknowledges. “I don’t want to promise things to the people that I cannot do but I certainly want to leave a legacy. If the people give you the authority to lead them, they have expectations,” he says. “They want you to build the country, to provide them with opportunities. If you fail to deliver, they have every right to remove you from office. But I will never betray the trust of my people.”