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A Good Man In Africa
S.L. Price
April 16, 2001
As coach and star of Liberia's national soccer team and as a benefactor to legions of his countrymen, George Weah is a rare ray of hope in a poor and violent place
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April 16, 2001

A Good Man In Africa

As coach and star of Liberia's national soccer team and as a benefactor to legions of his countrymen, George Weah is a rare ray of hope in a poor and violent place

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The first time Anthony Tokpah saw what George Weah had done to the Lone Star, he began to cry. This was in December. By 1998 Tokpah, a longtime goalie on the national team, had become fed up with the parade of weak coaches and the poor management, and he vowed never again to suit up for Liberia. But when Weah, in his new role as player-coach, called Tokpah and asked him to join the team for an African Nations Cup qualifier against South Africa, he had no choice. "He's too big," Tokpah says. "We all owe him. We know what he's done for the country, for the world...and he helped me go play in Europe for four years."

Still, when Tokpah showed up in Johannesburg, he expected the same old Lone Star. Liberia had always produced aggressive finishers, but its lack of a recognizable system made the team as dangerous to itself as it was to opponents. Yet under Weah, who demanded that players train together for one week—instead of the usual one day—before each game, the Lone Star had cohered into a patient, confident unit. Though Liberia would lose 2-1 to South Africa (Weah's only loss since taking over last June), Tokpah was astonished. "They were playing together" he says. Sitting on the team bench in Johannesburg, the goaltender with 2 SAD on his license plate bowed his head and wept out of pure happiness.

By then Weah's magic had long taken hold of the other players. Handed the team after Liberia's 2-0 loss to Sudan, Weah faced what seemed a ridiculous challenge: Nigeria. The Super Eagles had dominated Africa for a decade and had won over the planet as the darlings of the last two World Cups and as champions of the 1996 Olympics. Liberia hadn't competed well against Africa's best teams since the late '80s, and only five of the dozen-plus Liberian professionals who play abroad bothered to come home to play Nigeria. Still Weah kept asking friends, "Can Nigeria fly? If they don't fly, we will beat them." The night before the game, Liberian Football Association president Edwin Snowe stayed up until 3 a.m. worrying. "We're going to win 2-1," Weah told him. "Relax. Go to sleep."

At game time Monrovia's Samuel K. Doe Stadium, with 35,000 seats, was only half filled. Many Liberians wore Nigeria's colors. Weah had only 11 players. By the time the game ended—in a 2-1 Liberian victory, with Weah setting up both scores—Charles Taylor was dancing in the stands.

Weah's prediction had been no fluke. "He does this with everyone," says goalkeeper Louis Crayton. Years ago Crayton, angry over his relegation to the bench, wanted to quit the Lone Star. Weah told him that soccer was a game you cannot cheat, that Crayton had to keep playing because he never knew when his chance would come, and Weah guaranteed it would come. Then, Crayton says, it did: He is now the Lone Star's starting goalie. "The wisdom, the understanding, the knowledge—this is all from God," Crayton says of Weah. "Because when he speaks to you, the words are prophetic."

Maybe that's what has the Lone Star so inspired. Or maybe, as Massaquoi puts it, "Now the players know they have somebody they can't bull——." Certainly Weah knows everything they've been through—and then some. Abandoned by his parents at birth, raised by his devoutly Christian grandmother, Emma Klon Jleh Brown, Weah spent his youth on the streets in the Monrovia neighborhood of Gibraltar, playing barefoot soccer, smoking an occasional joint, selling popcorn, rummaging through garbage for bottles to sell, gambling. Every Saturday his grandmother sat him down and told him to work hard, stay honest.

"All the minutes and seconds and hours in my career, my entire life, I dedicate to my grandmother," Weah says. His clock began ticking in 1981, when the 15-year-old Weah began a quick rise through the cream of Liberia's soccer teams: Young Survivors, Mighty Barolle, the Invincible Eleven. While Weah captained the IE, his speed and towering presence caught the eye of a scout for Cameroon's powerhouse, Tonnerre de Yaounde. After Weah helped Tonnerre win a national title in 1988, Cameroon's national team coach, Claude le Roy, told Ars�ne Wenger, then coach of AS Monaco, that he had struck gold: a lithe, 6'2" striker with a magician's touch. Wenger flew down and signed Weah, but within four years Paris beckoned. After Weah led Paris-St. Germain to two French Cup championships and the '94 French League title, he had only one more level to conquer.

However, just a few weeks after Weah signed with AC Milan in May 1995, his grandmother died. Weah had been a practicing Muslim for a decade. In honor of his grandmother he converted back to Christianity. For her, he pushed his game even higher. Weah's ability to find seams for the most implausible passes, to produce one astonishing run after another, left aficionados breathless. After scoring 11 goals in '95, he became the only player to be named European, African and world player of the year. On opening day of the '96 season he cut through, over and around seven Verona players to produce a spectacular coast-to-coast score that remains one of the greatest in the game's history.

Much of what makes Weah unique is there in that run: creativity, grace and aggressive pride. Liberians may think him saintly, and he likes to think of himself as pious, but there's a part of Weah that is always ready to fight. While playing for Paris-St. Germain in the early 1990s, he became incensed when a Paris police officer pulled him over. Convinced that he was being harassed because of his skin color, Weah got into a shoving match with the cop, who pulled out his gun. Weah yanked it out of the gendarme's hand and waved it in his face. His car was impounded, never to be seen again. Then there was this infamous incident in November '96: After a game in which Porto defender Jorge (the Animal) Costa stepped on, kicked and provoked him with racist taunts, Weah waited for Costa in the tunnel beneath the stadium and shattered his nose with a head butt. "I did what I was supposed to do," Weah says.

None of that fire has burned off with the years, no matter how casual Weah appears. When you least expect it, in fact, he erupts. "We must be paid!" he shouts. "It is our constitutional right. You understand? We have to be paid!"

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