This time, a late night in February 2001, Weah flies to Liberia from France, where he now plays for the team Olympique Marseilles. As he strides across the tarmac in Monrovia, people rush out of the darkness to touch him. A huge crowd waits at one end of the runway, some members waving a banner of welcome. He steps into the pack and disappears, wrapped in its embrace. "Silence!" one man commands. "Let the king speak!"
Weah thanks the welcomers, whispers a few pleasantries, says nothing earthshaking. It doesn't matter. The crowd cheers the moment he stops speaking, because what's important is that George Weah is home when he doesn't have to be; when he could be in the U.S. with his wife and three children; when he could be in Marseilles, where the water actually flows out of faucets and the buildings aren't pocked by gunfire. The people cheer because as Liberia sinks further into the ranks of pariah states, Weah not only returns but also comes bearing the ultimate gift: distraction. For this week, at least, there's a chance for Liberians to obsess about the national team and drink a bit and forget that, after 11 years of unrelenting misery, their world is still going straight to hell.
Each day passes, and each day he smiles, dances, betrays no nerves, though the stars have aligned to make this trip extraordinary. Not long ago Weah—name and fortune made over two decades with his dazzling play for AS Monaco, for Paris-St. Germain and, especially, for the 1996 and '99 Italian league champion, AC Milan-had resigned himself to retiring without representing country and continent in the World Cup. Playing for his third professional team in 10 months and having been relegated from striker to midfield, he seemed sure to become the greatest player since England's George Best to miss out on sport's greatest event. Then, handed one last chance, Weah began to concoct a sporting miracle.
Since last June, when he took over as the Lone Star's technical director and coach as well as its star player, Weah has set up goal after goal and led Liberia to nine wins in 10 games, including upsets of Ghana and powerhouse Nigeria. But the upcoming home game on Sunday, Feb. 25, against the pathetic team from Sierra Leone, will be "the most important of all," he says, because if Liberia wins, it will vault past Nigeria to the top of Africa's Group B in the 2002 World Cup qualifying tournament with four games to go, putting untold pressure on Nigeria—only one team from the group qualifies—and giving the Lone Star's players a taste of rarefied air.
Like all of life in Liberia, though, the match has been complicated by Taylor. In December a U.N. report called Taylor "the single most destabilizing force in West Africa," accusing him of supplying the rebel forces of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front with arms in exchange for diamonds. That wasn't Taylor's first dose of international condemnation. A fugitive from Liberian justice who had been charged with embezzling $900,000 from the government, Taylor used a hacksaw and knotted bedsheets to break out of a Massachusetts jail where he was awaiting extradition in 1985. He then fled to Libya, where he cultivated a close relationship with its strongman, Mu'ammar Gadhafi. Taylor returned to Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989 and, with a small group of rebels, began a campaign of terror. Human-rights groups have charged Taylor with the gamut of wartime atrocities: systematic dismemberment of civilians; use of rape to spread fear; injection of heroin and cocaine into child soldiers to blunt their aversion to killing.
The U.S. has placed a travel ban on Taylor and members of his government, and the December U.N. report recommended that the ban be extended worldwide, along with embargoes on the purchase of Liberian diamonds and timber. Now, as military skirmishes along Liberia's borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea foster one of the world's worst refugee crises, the Liberian football association hasn't heard from its Sierra Leone counterpart. On Tuesday, Feb. 20, word comes that Sierra Leone has petitioned FIFA to cancel Sunday's game or move it. The team is too frightened to come to Monrovia to play.
"Sports people can protect the players," Weah says. "Whatever it costs to safeguard the Sierra Leone players, we will do it."
Thus the week unfolds as a strange dance of contrasts: Weah extending an open hand, Taylor shaking his fist. On Wednesday, Taylor jails four Liberian newspapermen for treason after they report that Taylor's regime spent $73,000 on Christmas cards and helicopter repairs at a time when Monrovia's main hospital was closed for lack of funds and civil servants were going unpaid. On Thursday the government raids four newspapers and shuts them down. Weah, meanwhile, makes preparations for a small peace ceremony that he has arranged before Sunday's game, and when, on Thursday, FIFA denies Sierra Leone's petition to cancel or move the game, he sends word that he will host a postgame party at his house for the Sierra Leone team, win or lose.
This is why Weah collects nicknames, such as Big Papa, that try to capture his essence, and why Liberian customs agents need write only KING GEORGE in their ledgers to mark his arrival. It is why, when a sour-faced Liberian official upbraids a foreign photographer for snapping pictures of kids playing soccer, only to hear that the man is a guest of Weah's, the official softens. "The Ambassador?" he asks, referring to Weah. "Welcome to Liberia!"
Liberians, like most soccer fanatics, hate losing; a poor performance guarantees the heaping of insults and threats on any available player. "If you lose in this country, they will kill you," says Fran�ois Massaquoi, Liberia's minister of youth and sports. "But I sleep; I snore in the night. Even if we lose on Sunday, the fans know this team has done its best. They trust George."