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Football hero Weah eyes new goal as Liberia's political saviour


George Weah. Photo - Wikimedia/Creative commons

Ask George Weah about his ambitions to lead Liberia and he will deliver an impassioned speech about his nation's potential -- but turn the subject to football and his eyes really light up.

Possibly Africa's greatest-ever player, Weah, who parlayed outstanding spells at Monaco, Milan and Chelsea into a career in politics, has agreed to a rare media interview to discuss his west African homeland's fragile peace process.

It is not long, however, before he is reliving what is widely regarded as one of the greatest goals ever scored and enthusing about an old mentor, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

"In my old age I'm scoring beautiful goals that I've never scored before. I don't know if it's because of the people I play with, but I'm still stronger and faster than them," says Weah, who plays each weekend for a team called The Legends.

Eleven years have past since the 47-year-old hung up his boots as an international star. Having conquered the world of football with a string of awards, he has set his eyes on a bigger prize.

"There is no doubt that our supporters ... want me to be president of this country because they believe I can change their lives," he told AFP at his Monrovia party headquarters, confirming for the first time that he will stand in 2017 presidential elections.

A member of the Kru ethnic group mired in poverty, raised by his grandmother on a reclaimed swamp in one of the worst slums of the capital Monrovia, Weah has come a long way.

His initial breakthrough came when he was plucked from the backwater of Cameroonian football aged 22 and signed by Wenger, who then managed AS Monaco.

Over 14 years Weah played for some of the world's most celebrated European clubs, amassing a considerable fortune.

'Wenger, my father figure'
Adapting quickly to the sophistication of European football, Weah became a towering figure in the 1990s as a quick, rangy and versatile forward who was deadly from long range and devastating in front of the goal.

His annus mirabilis came in 1994/95 when he was named both African and European player of the year after top scoring in Europe's prime tournament, the Champions League, with eight goals.

Weah decamped to AC Milan and scooped FIFA World Player of the Year, the only African to do so to this day. More recently, he was named his continent's player of the century.

The most unforgettable of his 46 goals wearing the Italian club's famed red-and-black was an incredible solo effort which saw him pick the ball up in his own penalty box before slaloming his way through seven Verona players before scoring.

Weah has been asked about this goal countless times but still describes it as if he were talking straight after the match.

"To beat those seven strong defenders... I assure you it was tough," he says, chest puffed out under traditional African robes dyed the same sky-blue as the Manchester City kit he wore toward the end of his career.

"But I'm happy that at least Africa is in history and Liberia is in history, because when you talk about one of the best goals ever shown on television, it is a Liberian's -- George Manneh Weah."

He moved from Milan to Chelsea, City, Marseille and finally Al Jazirah before calling it a day in 2003.

When Weah recalls that career it is Wenger, now at Arsenal, that he remembers as his most profound influence.

"My coach, my mentor, my father figure, Mr Arsene Wenger, is still one of the best coaches in the world. There's no doubt about it," he said.

Weah and his wife Clar, an ardent Arsenal fan who grew up in a Jamaican family in New York, make a point of travelling to London to watch the Gunners' first game of every season.

He rejects the growing clamour for Wenger's dismissal following another disappointing Premier League season and just one trophy in nine years at Highbury and The Emirates.

"I don't want him to quit. He still has the technical know-how, the intellect to transform the team," Weah says.

Inspired by Mandela
A glamorous figure at home, the rags-to-riches story of the man his compatriots call King George provides a rare beacon of hope for impoverished people who treat him as an icon.

Liberia still bears deep psychological and physical wounds from two back-to-back civil wars that raged from 1989 to 2003 and left a quarter of a million people dead.

Ten years after the rebels and government militia disarmed, Monrovia remains the only capital in the world with no public water supply or reliable electricity and its residents seek a saviour.

Weah's interest in politics was piqued by a meeting with Nelson Mandela in the mid-1990s, when he was inspired to speak out for peace in Liberia, urging the United Nations to rescue his country.

Weeks later, rebels exacted revenge by burning down his house and raping two of his cousins, a traumatic episode which only strengthened his resolve.

Weah unsuccessfully contested the presidential poll of 2005, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa's first democratically elected woman head of state.

Sirleaf was re-elected in 2011 with Weah again on the opposing ticket, this time running for vice-president. She acknowledged the popularity of her adversary and made him Liberia's peace ambassador.

Weah will stand in October elections for a place in the Senate, a step on his way to another bid for the presidency and the next phase of one of the most remarkable odysseys undertaken by a footballer.

Asked if he has what it takes, Weah sounds as self-assured as he was on that sunny afternoon in the San Siro against Verona.

"I think what we need to know as Liberians is what we want. We have been helped by the international community since the war," he says.

"After the war, we need to take a stance, we need to step forward and convince the world that if they leave us we can make sure that our country is stable and peaceful."


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