The setting was not unusual for Weah, widely regarded as the most celebrated African soccer player ever. But instead of the standard team jersey that he would normally wear in such an arena, Weah was wearing a suit. And instead of his fans’ adoration, he was asking for their votes in his quest to become the next president of Liberia.
Riddled by 14 years of civil war that has left tens of thousands dead, Liberia is facing what many consider to be a pivotal moment in its 158-year history. On Oct. 11, 2005, the citizens of this West African country founded by freed American slaves head to the polls to choose their next leader from some 22 candidates.
Weah, a former World Footballer of the Year, is among the most likely to win the top job.
“I have answered the call from my people,” Weah said just months before the October election in an interview with London’s Independent newspaper. “I am a national hero. I am a role model. The world must know I am speaking about credibility, dignity and accountability. … I love my people. This is my home.”
Born to a poor family in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Weah’s soccer prowess quickly caught the attention of a Cameroonian scout. In his early 20s, he was whisked from his Liberia to play in the nearby central African country. His skills soon landed him in Europe where he played for top teams in France, Italy and England.
In 1995, Weah reached the top of the soccer establishment, playing for the world’s best club, AC Milan in Italy, and earning the title of the world’s best player.
Weah served as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF since 1997 and after the 2003 peace accord, helped the international organization’s efforts to repatriate child soldiers back to their communities.
By 2002, Weah was very involved with politics and became the leader of the fledgling Congress for Democratic Change.
“The bottom line is that he has a good heart,” said Jacqueline Capehart, a Monrovia travel agent and prominent figure among a group of women supporting his candidacy, according to a 2004 Christian Science Monitor report. “He has always helped his friends, his family, his neighbors and people he doesn’t even know.”
Weah, a multimillionaire, contributes to charities and the country’s national soccer team. After the August 2005 hurricane in New Orleans left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless, Weah, who has spent the last few years living in the United States, contributed $10,000 to the relief effort.
“Once you take care of people, people respect you,” Weah told the New York Times Magazine for an August 2005 report about his candidacy. “They call you Papay.”
Critics, however, point to Weah’s lack of formal education — he quit school to focus on soccer — and claim he’s too naive to lead a country that has been hobbled for years by political corruption. He’d be too easily taken advantage of, some say, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
But in a country where with little formal education, some see his modest schooling as a benefit.
“We’ve had people with Ph.D.s who got into power and did nothing to benefit us,” a Monrovia barber named Carl told the Christian Science Monitor. “Liberians are fed up with politicians. They’ve wrecked the country. We want someone different.”
For much of its 158-year history, Liberia had been a stable nation, with close ties to the United States. But chaos erupted in 1989 and didn’t let up for any extended period until a peace agreement was signed in 2003, that forces the country’s dictator, Charles Taylor, out of power and into exile in Nigeria.
Since then, a transition government has been charged with leading the country until the October elections.
Weah and his family left the country when, in 1996, just days after he was quoted in a New York Times article saying the United Nations should overthrow Taylor’s government, his home was burned to the ground.
Though widely popular throughout Liberia, where more than 60 percent of the population is younger than 29, Weah still faces a stiff challenge in his presidential bid. Several former ministers from Taylor’s government as well as warlords who fought against it make up the 22-candidate field.
Among his toughest challengers are Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former opposition leader and ex-World Bank official, Charles Brumskine, a veteran senator, and Roland Massaquoi, a former agricultural minister and Taylor strategist.