AS A CHILD GROWING UP IN THE 1990s, my father used to have a tape of the 100 best goals from a century of Italian football. He didn’t know much about the game, and bought it as a gift for my uncle who had just started coaching his own son’s youth team. Luckily, my cousin didn’t have much interest in the sport, and by the time I started playing, the tape had found its way back into to our VCR.
This was before the age of YouTube, so naturally I memorised every strike. I decided that I wanted to score every type of goal on the video, and in my own low-grade way, I even managed a few cheap replicas at the park. I worked on my first touch in honour of Roberto Baggio’s sheer class against Bari, shot from ungodly distances due to Álvaro Recoba, and even developed an irritating habit of controlling passes with my heel as a testament to Antonio Cassano and his lovely debut goal against Inter.
However, one of my favourite strikes consistently eluded me – George Weah’s famous coast-to-coast finish for AC Milan on the opening day of the 1996/97 season. With his speed and power, combined with just enough luck and composure to slot it away, the goal was virtually impossible to replicate with my brother in the park. Weah was everything I wasn’t and wished to be as a slow, 12-year-old wannabe goal-scorer.
This October, he looks to be one of the favourites again. This time, on a more important platform than my individual list of Serie A goals.
This month, the Liberian Electoral Commission announced the results of the recent presidential election. With tallies arriving from 95.6 percent of polling stations, George Weah received 39 percent of the votes, putting him ahead of the current vice-president Joseph Boakai by 10 percent. However, the election still fell short of the 50 percent barrier required to determine the winner outright. As a result, a runoff election will be held on 7 November, a position that as of now, Weah seems to be the favourite for.
It was the start of a good week for the Weah family. The next day, his son Timothy, a Paris Saint-Germain academy star playing for the United States under-17 team, scored a hat-trick against the highly-touted Paraguayans. His three goals led the US to the quarter-finals of the Under-17 World Cup in India, capping off a captivating five-goal performance from coach John Hackworth’s side. Across the country, American fans were logging onto football sites to proclaim their individual excitement: “How on earth did the United States end up with a Weah?” Clearly I wasn’t the only one to have fondly remembered George’s talent, even if just on VCR.
Separately, both events have merited minor headlines across the world. The Liberian election would represent their first peaceful transfer of power in over seven decades. George Weah is also of Liberian tribal ancestry, a rarity among the economic and political elite in the country. If he wins, Weah would become first Liberian with fully native ancestry to be democratically elected president, a major achievement for the country as a whole.
On the footballing side, the United States are in the midst of perhaps their greatest ever crisis following the 2-1 loss against Trinidad and Tobago, a defeat that eliminated the country from 2018 World Cup participation. Although a minor victory in the long-term plans of the national team, Timothy Weah’s hat-trick merited just a bit of optimism amid a dismal month for the game.
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However, when situated side-by-side, the dual triumph of the Weahs has become one of one of 2017’s most unusual crossovers. Encompassing Abraham Lincoln, Devry University and, of course, a few special goals, it represents one of the strangest conglomerations of American and Liberian history, present, politics and sport to have emerged in the past few decades. It’s a story that to get to the bottom of, we need to start over 200 years ago, in the American capital, of all places.
[divider]Washington DC, 1816[/divider]
American politics has been partisan long before the creation of our modern parties. That’s why it was such a surprise for Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from Basking Ridge, New Jersey to see the crowd at hand for his presentation. There was Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and a prominent slaveowner from Kentucky. Secretary of State and future President James Monroe was attending as well, still carrying a small hole in his shoulder from a Revolutionary War musket ball.
He wasn’t the only future President, with Tennessee landowner and slavery advocate Andrew Jackson rounding at a room that included Daniel Webster, Bushrod Johnson, and even Francis Scott Key, the Maryland lawyer who wrote the basis of the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner. It was a strange coalition of Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, slave-owners, and abolitionists alike.
The meeting was an early attempt to find a solution to the rising numbers of free African-Americans in the United States, and the growing racial tension that accompanied this increase. Out of Finley’s idea and meeting, the ACS (American Colonization Society) was born to move free blacks away from the US. Some members like Finley thought that African-Americans would only be able to fulfil their potential in Africa, while others like Henry Clay believed more strongly against the amalgamation of the black and white races in the United States.
While both motives were based on different conceptions of race, their overarching similarity was a belief that black people could not be integrated into white America. As a result, in 1821, the ACS helped to fund the colony of Liberia as a place to send repatriated, free and manumitted black Americans. The capital city was named Monrovia after James Monroe, an early ACS president.
At the start, the American Colonization Society received almost universal support across the country. Donations poured in from abolitionists who saw it as their duty to right the wrong of forced migration, while Virginia slaveholders silently filled the coffers as a way to remove free black individuals who had started the seeds of rebellion. However, their assistance drew scrutiny from black and white abolitionists alike as their true intent to rid the country of the most educated of the former black slaves was slowly realised.
Although the American Colonization Society had its fierce critics, it continued to spark serious debate among the American elite as the 19th century progressed, finding an especially sympathetic voice in Henry Clay admirer and future president, Abraham Lincoln. With the support of Lincoln and other prominent statesmen, through the half-century, the United States sent over 20,000 people to Liberia, creating a distinctly American hierarchy on the west coast of Africa.
Although African repatriation was sometimes preferable to the stifling racism in the United States, unsurprisingly, most black Americans sent to Liberia found little in common with those already living there. Many of the Americans that arrived in Monrovia were educated under a Western worldview and found little irony in excluding the indigenous tribes from their own land. As a result, they effectively transplanted the feudal system they left behind, this time putting themselves in the role of masters.
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These settlers came to identify themselves as Americo-Liberians, and propagated American cultural traditions of political republicanism and Protestant Christianity. Encounters between the two groups of native and Americo-Liberians were often violent, as the latter population envisioned a Western-style state in which the indigenous Liberians would have to assimilate.
In 1847, this dream became a reality as the Republic of Liberia was officially established. Based on the principles of the United States Constitution, the new leadership quickly established ties with their former homeland, all while making an effort to exclude their own inland tribes. The passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act solidified this new ideology, prohibiting commerce outside of the Americo-Liberian coastal areas to “encourage the growth of civilized values” and control trade in the country.
While those early immigrants eventually passed away as the 19th century progressed, their descendants continued to dominate the political, social and economic sectors as a quasi-settler class. Although they made up just four percent of the population, the Americo-Liberians governed a majority of the power and resources through the True Whig Party and Liberian Masonic Order. Taking advantage of their pre-eminent position and its accompanying wealth, these Americo-Liberians continued to stay connected with the West, often sending their children to the United States for education and vocational training until the late 20th century.
On 1 October 1966, George Weah was born amidst this rule in the Clara Town slum of Monrovia. Weah grew up as a member of the Kru ethnic group, traditionally an ethnic minority from the south-east of the country, one of its poorest areas.
As a young player, he balanced his time between football and Liberia Telecommunications Corporation, working as a switchboard technician before he made the move from West Africa to Monaco in 1988. At Monaco, he flourished under Arsène Wenger, and just a year later, won the African Football of the Year award, his first major individual honour. Even Wenger was surprised by Weah’s quick adaption to European football, remarking: “I have never seen any player explode onto the scene like he did.”
Moves to PSG, Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Marseille followed, where Weah’s talent won him not only the coveted World Footballer of the Year award in 1995, but also the Ballon d’Or that same season. The Liberian picked up two additional African Footballer of the Year Awards for his exceptional form in 1994 and 1995, cementing his status as a legend across the continent. Unlike the breed of penalty-box strikers produced across the world at the time, Weah was a different variety of forward. Comfortable across the entire front line, he was just as talented running at players and creating chances for others as he was scoring.
Off the field, Weah was a giant in his work to fight racism in football and poverty at home. In 1994 he founded the Junior Professionals in Monrovia as a way to encourage young Liberians to stay at school. He also became involved with UNICEF that same year, publicising immunisation campaigns in Liberia, as well as bringing attention to the plight of child soldiers fighting in the civil wars ravaging Western Africa. His was an impressive career of goals, awards and titles, all spectacular feats starkly contrasted with the events occurring in his country.
When Weah was 14 years old, in 1980, his country was thrown into a state of pandemonium with the ascension of Sergeant Samuel Doe to power. A member of the Krahn tribe from inland Liberia, Doe represented most of the country in his frustrations with the colonial-style rule of the minority Americo-Liberians. In response, he organised a military coup against then-President William R. Tolbert, killing him along with many of his Americo-Liberian supporters in crowded public executions.
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Although Doe tried to legitimise his rule with free elections in 1985, the damage had been done. Five years of his Ronald Reagan-backed People’s Redemption Council was followed by five more years of pseudo-civilian rule by the National Democratic Party of Liberia, also run by Doe. A more effective military leader than ruler, the power vacuum Doe produced by destroying the Americo-Liberian power elite essentially left the country in a state of chaos.
In 1989, total war broke out following an invasion by an ethnically Liberian force from the Ivory Coast that had been oppressed by Doe’s Krahn people. Archbishop Michael Francis described the war as a battle between all of the native tribes of the country to fill the newly created void, writing: “It was no longer an affair of Americo-Liberians. If you were a Krahn you were killed, if you were a Gio you were killed, if you were a Mano you were killed. It was just senseless killing, and before we knew it, our streets were just filled with skeletons and the stench of death.”
The first and second Liberian Civil Wars lasted from 1989 to 1997, completely destroying the country. By the end of the 20th century, more than 250,000 Liberians had been killed in fighting, while the economy had shrunk by 90 percent.
Following the Second Civil War, Liberia was undisputedly at its lowest point. Just as he led them on the football field, George Weah felt that he was the man to bring the country back into prosperity. As an immensely popular figure across Liberia, Weah announced his intention to run for president in the 2005 election. According to Weah, the hardships he experienced as a child led to his desire to become a politician: “I had always wondered while growing up as to why many of my counterparts and I were subjected to such an impoverished lifestyle while a selected few lived in abundance. But little did I know that these things were caused due to an age-old problem consisting of corruption, greed and the lack of vision, unpatriotic leaders, and the inequitable distribution of our national wealth.”
Weah’s supporters saw his opponent as the direct embodiment of this privilege, the former Minister of Finance, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Johnson-Sirleaf was a Harvard graduate with experience at the World Bank and United Nations. While not ancestrally Americo-Liberian, Johnson-Sirleaf had German heritage and spent a significant amount of time in the United States during the Doe reign.
Although the Civil War had ended, the divide between native and Americo-Liberians was still very real in the country. Over 100 years of essentially American-inspired feudalism were not easily forgotten, and the largely illiterate population still associated the educated politicians with elitism and corruption, two problems many Liberians blamed on the country of the United States as a whole. These were charges that Weah encouraged as a political outsider.
In his rallies against Johnson-Sirleaf, Weah’s supporters would chant against her: “Degree-holder, you know book – and your country dirty (corrupt).” In contrast, Weah promised his supporters that he was immune to the wealth, corruption and foreign influence that had plagued the country since Liberia’s founding.
However, Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity party had their own strategy to fight the former footballer with. Despite his World and African Player of the Year awards, Weah had little more than an average teenager’s formal education. Compared to Johnson-Sirleaf’s vast job experience and Ivy League degree, even some of Weah’s more realistic supporters would agree that his lack of an education put him at a disadvantage.
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In response to these assertions, the presidential candidate contended: “With all of their education and experience, they (the political class) have governed this nation for hundreds of years. They have never done anything for the nation.” Despite this claim, his lack of schooling ended up being the nail in the coffin of his campaign. In the run-off election, Weah lost to Sirleaf-Johnson.
As a result of the vote, Weah decided he needed to make a change. Ironically, following in the footsteps of his opponent and those Americo-Liberians in power before him, Weah moved to the United States to pursue a degree. His college of choice? The for-profit Devry University in Miami, Florida, a school better known for its predatory loans than any sort of political training program. Once he received his degree in business administration, Weah was overwhelmingly elected to the Liberian Senate, a position he has used as a base to run for this year’s presidency, once again utilising the same populist campaign against Boakai and the establishment Unity Party.
Although the extent of Weah’s DeVry education remains a question, the years he spent in the United States studying were very real. His son Timothy was born in New York City and is an American citizen. Under Liberia’s restrictive dual-passport law, Timothy will never be a Liberian like his father.
A skilful, powerful forward like George, Timothy grew up competing in Florida where his father was attending school. At the age of nine he moved back to New York, where he played for BW Gottschee for three years before representing the New York Red Bulls Academy. In 2015, Weah went on trial with PSG, his father’s former club. After two years with the Parisians, this June, Weah signed his first professional deal.
Among the national team youth staff, Timothy is seen as one of the brightest prospects to break through in the past decade. While his talent was never in doubt, he found it difficult to force his way into the stacked under-17 lineup during the CONCACAF U-17 Championship and World Cup group stage. However, following his recent hat-trick and possible strike of the tournament, a 25-yard curler, Weah looks set to play a major role in the American team for some years to come.
Even so, this tale of two Weahs is nowhere near complete. As the star power of both men continues to rise, it will be fascinating to see if they begin to intersect. The long and complex relationship between the United States and Liberia is still fractured following the detrimental legacy of the American-inspired settler-class. While the Americo-Liberians may be a fading power in the country, the intellectual suspicion and antipathy that the United States inspires is still very real. With his ethnically-Kru surname and everyman popularity as a famous footballer, this dislike is a major aspect of George Weah’s campaign to distance his persona from the ruling elite.
As a result of this tension, the timing of Weah’s own political ascension is only magnified by the parallel rise of his American son, and thus begs an important question: will the football-mad Liberians be able to distance George Weah the fiercely native politician from George Weah, the father of a star player from their traditional foe?
It’s a question with unusual relevance as father and son continue to make headlines across the world. And if their legacies are anything like a shared style on the field, their near-futures are ones that we should pay close attention to, because as both Weahs have proven, they should be anything but predictable