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supporters jubilating with George Oppong Weah

Weah : From football pitch to Presidential Palace

By Danusa Ocholi,

The year 2017 ended in a blaze of glory for former Liberia’s football super star, George Opong Weah. The former soccer  star  was  elected as Liberia’s president. It was indeed a great moment of glory for the player who remains the only African to win the exalted World Footballer of the Year Award.

With nearly all ballots from last Tuesday’s run-off vote counted, Mr Weah was  well ahead of opponent Joseph Boakai with more than 60% of the vote.

As news of Mr Weah’s victory emerged, his supporters began celebrating in the capital Monrovia.He will succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, in Liberia’s first democratic handover in decades. “My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation,” Mr Weah wrote on Twitter after the results were announced. He added:”I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on.”

Who is George Weah?

 Weah, who was raised in a slum in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, starred at top-flight European football clubs Paris St-Germain (PSG) and AC Milan, before ending his career in England with brief stays at Chelsea and Manchester City.

He is the only African footballer to have won both Fifa World Player of the Year and the prestigious Ballon D’Or.

He entered politics after his retirement from the game in 2002 and is currently a senator in Liberia’s parliament.

His former club, PSG, congratulated him on Twitter.

Twitter post by @PSG_English: We knew George Weah way before he became President-elect of Liberia 🇱🇷 😃😃😃Congrats to the PSG and world football legend on the latest chapter of his brilliant career!!! Image Copyright @PSG_English@PSG_ENGLISH

It was a tedious journey for Weah.George Weah won the first round of the election – but not by enough to avoid a run-off vote Mrs Sirleaf defeated Mr Weah in the presidential election run-off in 2005 and took office a year later, after the end of a brutal civil war that saw President Charles Taylor forced out by rebels. Taylor is now serving a 50-year prison sentence in the UK for war crimes related to the conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

This time Mr Weah’s campaign – under the Coalition for Democratic Change banner – appealed to the youth vote, while incumbent Vice-President Boakai was seen as old and out of touch. But Mr Weah’s election is not without controversy, as his running mate was Jewel Taylor, former wife of the jailed president.

Nevertheless, hundreds of jubilant supporters of  Weah took to the streets shortly after the electoral commission chairman announced the result. Election observers, both domestic and foreign, have praised the conduct of the election and say it showed a marked improvement from the first round in October.

This is third time lucky for a man used to winning trophies but who found it hard to win this, the biggest award of his life. And he has his work cut out for him.

Liberia has stabilised in the past decade after a long and bloody civil war. But it is still struggling with acute poverty and corruption. From producing Africa’s first elected female president, now it has produced its first ex-footballer head of state. Mr Weah, 51, won the first round of the presidential election in October with 38.4% of the vote, compared with the 28.8% won by second-placed Mr Boakai, 73. The failure of any candidate to secure an outright majority forced the run-off.

The National Elections Commission (NEC) said on Thursday that with 98.1% of the run-off vote counted, Mr Weah had won 61.5% of the vote while Mr Boakai was far behind with 38.5%.

Turnout was low – put at 56% by election officials – for the vote, which had been delayed from its initial date, 7 November, following a legal challenge brought by a representative for the opposition Liberty Party, Charles Brumskine.Mr Brumskine said the first round vote – which he came third in – had been marred by “massive fraud and irregularities”, but in December the Supreme Court ruled evidence of fraud was insufficient to merit a re-run of the opening round.Election observers have praised the conduct of the poll.More than two million people were eligible to cast their ballots in the nation of 4.6 million people.

Analysts had described George Weah as a player that  could dribble, sprint and shoot. He also possessed a good leap to power headers past goalkeepers. But he has scored his best ever goal by winning the Liberian presidential election following results announced last Thursday evening.

Weah is not your ordinary African footballer, who just wanted to play football to escape the harsh reality of poverty and his childhood. He dreamed he could help his country and he initially did through his prowess on the football pitch. But he is about to be handed the keys to the presidential mansion, where he can make all those differences he had always dreamed about.

It is instructive to note that Weah defeated the outgoing Liberia President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in the first round of balloting in 2005. However, just like in 2017, he did not poll  the required 51 per cent of votes in the first round. In the second round in 2015, Johnson-Sirleaf polled 59 per cent of the votes compared to 41 per cent for Weah.

But right now, the 51-year-old has the opportunity to score political goals 14 years after retiring from scoring football goals!The first African nation to pronounce her freedom -1847 – has become the first African nation to prove that football can mean power – in the right hands.

 Weah the Footballer

Born October 1, 1966, Weah started his footballing career in Liberia. The current Arsenal of England coach, Arsene Wenger, brought him to Europe when he signed for Monaco in 1988. He moved to French giant PSG in 1992 long before Arab money mad the club the power house it is now. He won the French League in 1994 and became the top scorer of the 1994–95 UEFA Champions League. In 1995, he signed for Italian giants AC Milan, after they had lost the Champions League final of that year to Ajax, where he spent four successful seasons, and won the Italian Serie A twice. He moved to England towards the end of his career and had spells at Chelsea and Manchester City, before returning to France to play for Marseille in 2001. He subsequently ended his career with Al-Jazira in the UAE 2003. At international level, he represented Liberia at the African Cup of Nations on two occasions.

Throughout his career, Weah proved he was not the ordinary footballer. He is still the one and only player ever to hold the African, European and World diadem for the best footballer at the same time (1995).

Weah the President

Right now, Weah has won more than the Ballon d’ Or in his native Liberia as he has been elected the president. He will become the first ever world footballer of the year to become president of a country. Indications from Monrovia by external observers have said the polls were largely free and fair.

Former Nigeria President, Goodluck Jonathan, one of the observers of the Liberian run-off election told the BBC that though there were some challenges, he was sure the result would be fair to all contestants. “The ballot box has replaced bullets and electoral disputes are settled through the courts,” he said of elections in the country that witnessed several years of civil war prior to 2005.Whilst playing for Liberia in the throes of civil war, King George, as he is fondly called, single-handedly picked up the bills of the national football team and almost led them to the 2002 World Cup – they were beaten to the ticket by Nigeria by one point. If he becomes president, he will be winning more than the ‘World Cup’.

Since joining the political terrain in 2005, Weah has been told he cannot win mainly because of a lack of education. He has tried to diffuse that contempt with a Business Administration degree from the DeVry University in 2011 and for good measure added a Masters degree in Management from the Keller Graduate School of Management in 2013.

Weah, known for his close control and lung-bursting runs on the football pitch, said just as he played football naturally, he believes he has been called to help the Liberian people. “I feel I have been called to service,” Weah told the BBC. “For the love of my country and for the love of my people I want to become president of what I have already done to change my people’s lives and by being president I feel can do more. “I have come from slums, roaming around the streets of Monrovia [Liberia’s capital]. I made a mark.” He told the Voice of America in 2011 that education alone should not be the caveat for leadership. “There are lots people that went into leadership and they don’t even have a college degree. “But because people believe in them, they show good leadership skills. So, it’s left with the Liberian people [to determine] whether, because I have a college degree, I can be leader of that country. “But, I know that I am a good leader, and I am waiting for the opportunity to one day lead that country,” Weah added.Football can be a powerful political tool. If anyone cares to disagree then just point him or her in the direction of West Africa, particularly Liberia, where Weah has almost dribbled his way into government house.

Running mate was Charles Taylor’s wife

Liberian presidential candidate George Weah’s running mate, Jewel Howard-Taylor, began life in politics as first lady to former warlord leader Charles Taylor, but has since established a formidable political reputation in her own right.Howard-Taylor was a surprise pick for vice-president on the ticket of the footballer turned politician, as many expected her to run for the top job herself.

Her National Patriotic Party was formed in 1997 by members of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia — Charles Taylor’s rebel fighters — to allow him to run for president in hopes of ending a civil war that began in 1989. She married Liberia’s most powerful warlord just before he was elected in 1997 by a population weary of conflict, and was granted a divorce in 2006, while Taylor was living in exile in Nigeria with another woman.

Howard-Taylor’s political career began in earnest when she was elected in 2005 as a senator in Bong County, the nation’s third most populous county, and has since built an image as a resilient hard worker in Liberia’s male-dominated politics. “The first thing I’ve done is to believe that I am able to make the changes I talk about,” she told AFP in a recent interview. “I have made promises I have fulfilled in education, healthcare and infrastructure development, and so I hope over the past 12 years Jewel Howard has become her own person working for peace, working for prosperity and working for development,” she added.Her NPP party agreed to form a coalition with Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change in 2017, on the condition Howard-Taylor could run as vice-president.

No matter what she does to distance herself, Howard-Taylor’s proximity to Taylor remains a talking point, and in a nation where the ex-president is still revered by many, her presence seems to have been an asset for Weah.The former AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain football star won just 10.7 percent of the vote in Bong County when he stood for president in 2005, but in the first round of voting in 2017, his share of the vote shot up to 40.6 percent. However, Weah was expected to take a hit in Grand Gedeh county, a traditional stronghold for supporters of Samuel Doe, the president Taylor overthrew in a coup.

Liberians feel the election far represented  far more than the choice of a successor to Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf’s predecessor Charles Taylor fled the country in 2003 with hopes of avoiding prosecution for funding rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone, while two presidents who served prior to Taylor were assassinated. The tumult of the last seven decades in Liberia, a small West African nation where an estimated 250,000 people died during back-to-back civil wars between 1989-2003, means a democratic handover has not taken place since 1944.

“No matter the results, we will accept it without causing problems. We don’t need trouble here anymore,” said Samuel Nuahn, 46, who voted for establishment candidate Vice President Joseph Boakai in Tuesday’s presidential run-off before the results were announced.

As observers hailed a credible election held without a single major incident of violence, despite weeks of delays caused by legal challenges, Liberians said they were looking forward to the baton of peace held for 12 years under Sirleaf being handed over.

“Since years of civil war, this is the first time we see the transition of power from one person to another. So today is an exciting moment for me especially as well as an exciting moment for Liberia,” voter Oscar Sorbah told AFP after casting his ballot on Tuesday.

The Sirleaf administration, elected in 2005, guided the nation out of the ruins of war and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis but is accused of failing to combat poverty and corruption.

Weah’s CDC party has watched their icon miss out on the presidency in a 2005 bid and was similarly frustrated when he ran for vice-president in 2011, but has repeatedly urged its young and exuberant supporters to keep cool.

“No matter what the provocation will be, CDC will not respond with violence,” Jefferson Kotchie, head of the youth wing of the CDC, told supporters assembled at the headquarters of the party.The ballot was delayed for seven weeks due to legal challenges lodged by Boakai’s Unity Party against the electoral commission over the conduct of the first round, but many of the complaints appeared to have been addressed in the second round.

10 things you didn’t know about George Weah

  • After starting his career in his home country of Liberia, Arsene Wenger brought him to Europe where he signed for Monaco in 1988.

 

  • Weah moved to Paris Saint German in 1992 where he won Ligue 1 in 1994 and became the top scorer of the 1994-95 UEFA Champions League.

 

  • He signed for AC Milan in 1995 where he spent four successful seasons, and won the Italian Serie A, twice. His most notable goal in Italy saw him run the length of the field against Verona.

 

  • He moved to the English Premier League towards the end of his career and had spells at Chelsea and Manchester City, before returning to France to play for Marseille in 2001, and subsequently ending his career with Al-Jazira in 2003.

 

  • At international level, he represented Liberia at the African Cup of Nations on two occasions.

 

  • An idol in Africa, Weah has been heavily involved in politics in his homeland Liberia and ran unsuccessfully for president in the 2005 elections, losing to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the second round of voting.

 

  • In the 2011 election, he ran for vice president on Winston Tubman’s ticket. Running as a Congress for Democratic Change candidate, Weah was elected to the senate in 2014.

 

  • As successful as he was at club level, Weah was not able to bring over that success to the Liberia National Team. In total, Weah played 60 games for Liberia over 20 years, scoring 22 goals.

 

  • Along with all-time greats in the sport such as Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best, Weah is regarded as being among the best football players who never got the chance to play at a World Cup.

 

  • Upon official announcement, George Weah will be the only retired professional footballer to become his country’s leader.

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