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GEORGE WEAH IS UNDOUBTEDLY one Africa’s all-time greatest footballers. In a glittering 13-year spell in Europe, he played for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Chelsea, winning Ligue 1 titles, two Scudetti, and the FA Cup. He was also the recipient of the 1995 Ballon d’Or – the first and so far only African to be awarded such an accolade.

Even after his inauguration as the 25th President of Liberia, however, his greatest achievement could be argued to be something largely unheralded. In 2002, with his nation under the rule of a dictator and in the middle of a civil war, Weah led Liberia to within one point of World Cup qualification.

Unlike some players hailing from small countries, Weah was fiercely loyal to Liberia, repeatedly returning to the impoverished West African country where he was born in 1966. He placed particular focus on education, sexual health and refugee protection, being appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1997. Locally he is known as ‘King George’, serving as an idol to his entire nation for his inspirational struggle to the top of the world. Had one game gone differently, he’d have taken the rest of the nation with him.

The journey began on 9 April 2000 in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad. Liberia won the first leg courtesy of a goal from Kelvin Sebwe, with the second match back in Monrovia ending in a goalless draw. This was a game itself not bereft of difficulty, with spectators queueing for hours before kick-off to get into a baking-hot National Sports Complex. This resulted in an attendance almost double the capacity, and a crush where three people suffocated.

Such was the importance of this match, President Charles Taylor threatened to sack any of his officials who did not attend, stating prior to kick off: “Any government minister who is not at the field that day will be in trouble.” It was a warning not to be taken lightly, with the president being one of Africa’s most violent and feared warlords.

Taylor had seized control of Liberia following the conclusion of the First Civil War in 1997. After fleeing in 1983 amidst a disagreement with junta leader Samuel Doe, he marched back into the country in 1989 with his National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL) guerrillas. A break-off faction, the Independent NPFL, led by Prince Johnson, captured and executed Doe in 1990, with the gruesome ordeal being recorded on video. The United Nations soon became involved, assisting the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to implement a peace deal.

After a brief ceasefire in 1995, heavy fighting broke out between the NPFL and United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) in Monrovia, leading to the destruction of much of the capital city. Taylor’s forces eventually succeeded and, in July 1997, he won the election for president, with many voting for him purely out of fear. There was also a false hope he might calm down the violence, in which an estimated 500,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives.

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Unfortunately, Taylor proceeded to rule with a similar brutality to Doe, backing rebel fighters in neighbouring countries such as Sierra Leone, and using blood diamond money to fund his luxurious lifestyle. Tensions failed to disperse, with the vanquished supporters of Doe regrouping.

The Second Civil War began just over 18 months later, in April 1999, with Taylor under threat from the Guinea backed northern rebels, who had re-named themselves Liberians United For Democracy (LURD). He also faced growing international pressure due to his inhumane methods, which included dismemberment of enemies and use of drug-fuelled child soldiers.

The fame Weah enjoyed made him a prime target, with Taylor publicly known to be envious of his mythical status amongst Liberians. Despite no official responsibility ever being taken, it is widely assumed Taylor was behind an attack on Weah’s family home. A group of men commanded by his loyal lieutenant George Dwannah, commonly known as ‘Jack the Rebel’, arrived on the evening of 23 May 1996 to commit disgraceful acts. First the men were dragged outside and violently beaten, with the troops then venturing inside to rape the women, including two of Weah’s teenage cousins. Not finished, they then proceeded to ransack the house of all valuables before dousing it in petrol and setting it ablaze, making off in a Land Rover and Mercedes stolen from the property.

These harrowing acts put into perspective the irrelevance of the World Cup qualifying draw in 2000, which followed a previous campaign where only four points had been amassed. Following the Chad victory, Liberia were placed in a tough group, featuring continental heavyweights Ghana and Nigeria, as well as two fellow civil war-ravaged nations in Sierra Leone and Sudan. Naturally little was expected from a country ranked 111th in the world.

Qualifying opened in June with a 2-0 loss in Sudan, a result which cost manager Philippe Redon his job. Following this, Weah took on the additional role of manager, and in his first game produced a shock result. Africa Cup of Nations runners-up in February, the star-studded squad of Nigeria rolled into Monrovia expecting to easily brush aside the hosts. The week before, Liberia had lost 1-0 to Cape Verde, although this time, they amazingly managed to pull off a 2-1 win. One-time Arsenal player Christopher Wreh opened the scoring after just four minutes, with Nwankwo Kanu briefly levelling proceedings prior to Wreh getting a second just after half-time.

Alongside the ongoing conflict, Liberia’s cause was further complicated by the fact they had to simultaneously play their 2002 AFCON qualifiers. After overcoming Cape Verde 3-0 in Monrovia, which included goalkeeper Louis Crayton saving a last-minute penalty, they were paired with Congo, Mauritius and South Africa. They opened in September with a comfortable 4-0 win over Mauritius, before losing 2-1 in Johannesburg in December. Another emphatic home win October – 5-1 against Congo – put the nation in a good position to reach the finals in Mali.

A fortnight later they were back to the main task of Japan and South Korea, with a tough trip to Ghana on the agenda. Despite a wage dispute, where players were threatening to strike should they not be paid in advance, Liberia went to Accra and outplayed the hosts. The pace of the Liberian attack caused problems, with an early chance for Weah being cleared off the line before Frank Seator powered home a header to give Liberia the lead.

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The introduction of Emmanuel Osei Kuffour on the hour mark gave the home side added impetus, and after his vision found Charles Akonnor, Emmanuel Duah prodded home to level proceedings. With Ghana now in the ascendency, it was over to the brilliance of Weah to swing the game back in Liberia’s favour. With five minutes left he received the ball and ran at the defence, with Jacob Nettey’s challenge resulting in a controversial penalty. Oliver Makor converted, and in injury time Musa Shannon’s tap-in ensured the three points would be returning to Liberia.

This was a welcome moment of light for the country, with the civil war continuing to torment daily life. Despite fears from Weah’s wife that he would be assassinated, in truth this was never likely. Taylor leached off his success, using the happiness to divert attention from his increasingly barbaric acts. As Francois Massaquoi, a minister of Taylor once said: “George Weah and football are the only things we have to hold onto. Football is the glue that holds this country together.”

In September 2000, Taylor and his allies in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Force (RUF), launched a series of guerrilla attacks in the neighbouring nations of Guinea and Sierra Leone, where rebels were being supplied from. However, by January 2001, the same month as the Ghana match, they began to lose momentum after the governments of the two nations struck back through UK and US support. Taylor’s legitimacy was weakening too, with four journalists breaking a story that he had spent $73,000 on Christmas cards and helicopter repairs at a time when Monrovia’s main hospital was closed due to alleged lack of funds.

As a result, the game on 25 February 2001 with Sierra Leone took on an increasingly complex element. The visitors’ squad sent a petition to FIFA asking them to either move or postpone the fixture, citing security concerns. The world governing body rejected the proposal, with Weah promising to protect the Sierra Leone players. He had a series of t-shirts printed for the two teams to wear in the warm-up reading “football unites”, alongside a banner carried by both sets of players reading “Liberia-Sierra Leone Peace”. Courtesy of a second-half header from Zizi Roberts, Liberia’s ‘Lone Star’ secured another victory.

This nickname can be argued to possess duel meaning. Officially it makes reference to the single star on the Liberia flag, symbolising the first independent Western-style republic in Africa, but also unintentionally addresses Weah’s superior ability. Despite being past his best, playing in midfield and featuring as a bit-part player at Manchester City and Marseille prior to a summer 2001 move to UAE outfit Al-Jazira, he was still the main man for the national side.

His influence over the rest of the squad too cannot be overstated. Alongside coaching, at the height of the First Civil War he single-handedly financed the team, supplying equipment and paying for travel requirements to fulfil matches. Of the 25 players in the squad, 10 of them landed contracts in Europe thanks to Weah’s recommendations, with the player paying for flights to Europe for trials. The core group had been together since 1996 when, led by their talisman, Liberia qualified for their first ever tournament, the AFCON in South Africa. Despite finishing in bottom place, it was a big leap forward for football in the troubled nation.

The majority of the squad remained unchanged for the 2002 campaign, with standout players alongside Weah including former Lyon and Nice striker James Debbah, Arsenal’s Wreh, penalty specialist Sebwe and Joe Nagbe, father of the future Major League Soccer All-Star player Darlington. Players were based across four continents, plying their trade in such varied locations as Malaysia, Oman and USA, alongside several based in Liberia. Some, such as reserve defender Richard Kamara, did not even have a club for the majority of the campaign.

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Weah scored his first goal of qualifying in April 2001, grabbing the second in a 2-0 home win over closest rivals Sudan. The day before, Sierra Leone had beaten Nigeria 1-0 in Freetown, meaning with just three games left, Liberia were top of the group, three points ahead of Sudan and with five more than Nigeria. After the victory, Weah expressed the excitement of the nation: “We’re on a fairytale run and I think my dream of playing in the World Cup could be a reality after all.”

Realistically Liberia needed two more wins to qualify, although still had to face a tough trip to Nigeria. A delayed flight to Port Harcourt scuppered their pre-match plans, with arrival in Nigeria coming just 24 hours before goals from Kanu and Victor Agali secured a 2-0 win for the hosts. Despite this disappointment, however, qualification was still in Liberia’s hands, with matches against an underperforming Ghana and bottom side Sierra Leone.

Unfortunately, in the Ghana game they also came up short. Charles Amoah put the Black Stars ahead after half an hour, and despite an equaliser from Sebwe that looked to have restored hope, Isaac Boakye scored in the second half to seal victory. Following this fans reacted angrily, stoning the players’ bus as it left the stadium and gathering outside the team hotel in an aggressive mob that required security forces to be dispersed. Such behaviour induced shame in Weah, who resigned from both playing and coaching capacities.

On the same day, Jay-Jay Okocha inspired Nigeria to a 4-0 victory in Sudan, and subsequently put qualification beyond Liberia. A late winner in Sierra Leone from Weah, who had reversed his retirement decision and came on as a substitute, temporarily put them back to the top of Group B. However, with all their games played, it was left to hoping that Ghana would get something in Nigeria. Unfortunately, they never recovered from a first-minute goal from Agali, and two more goals from Tijani Babaginda sealed Liberia’s fate. Afterwards, Weah was characteristically humble: “If I’m honest, we didn’t deserve to qualify. But the Lone Star has made progress.”

Small consolation was a rise to a record high of 66 in the FIFA World Rankings, alongside qualification for the 2002 AFCON in Mali. Prior to this Weah refused to let the squad train in Liberia in protest at Taylor, instead taking them to a camp in the Ivory Coast. The tournament started in January 2002, involving another date with the Nigerians after matches with Algeria and the hosts. The opening two games ended in draws, with Liberia twice denied wins courtesy of 87th  and 91st-minute equalisers from Mali and Algeria respectively. Then, in the final fixture, in the last of Weah’s 60 caps, came another loss to Nigeria and elimination.

The national disappointment was tangible. Despite fast losing his grip on power, Taylor saw fit to disband the national team in an act of shame. At the end of the month, the president declared a state of emergency due to the progress being made by LURD, and after a second rebel group emerged in the south, Taylor resigned in August 2003 amidst ongoing peace talks. Fleeing to Nigeria in exile, Interpol issued an arrest warrant, and after being extradited in 2006 by new president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the despot was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment in 2012.

Sirleaf, meanwhile, maintained her position until this year, when she will be replaced by Weah. His election has been widely celebrated, the people’s choice for what will be the first democratic transition of power in the country since 1944. The handover took place on 22 January, when George Weah was bestowed with the title of President of Liberia. In truth, he had already been that for the past 30 years. 

By James Kelly