George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah. Or if you would prefer, ‘Mr George’.
Most people who watched any kind of football during the 1990s will know the name George Weah. A footballer with immense talent and a man who managed to break down many of the barriers that used to exist for African footballers in Europe. As a footballer George Weah left behind a legacy that provided an inspiration to a generation of African footballers and as a person ‘Mr George’ is still a major influence in his home country of Liberia, but more on that later.
Born on the 1st of October 1966 in the slums of Monrovia George Weah grew up under the watchful eye of his grandmother in one of the poorest parts of Africa. He started playing football professionally at 19 signing with the local team Mighty Barolle but only spent a season with them before moving across town to the unbelievably named ‘Union of Invincible Eleven & Majestic Sports Association Inc’ or to give them their short name ‘Invincible Eleven’.
Weah played for a further two African teams based in Cameroon and Ivory Coast before a manager in France took a chance on him and moved him to Monaco. That man was Arsene Wenger. This move to Europe kickstarted a career that spanned almost 15 years across France, Italy and England.
Scoring 103 goals in four seasons for Monaco (1988-92) meant a big money move to PSG and a chance to play on the biggest stage in club football, the Champions League. He was top scorer in the 1994-95 tournament and he tasted domestic success with PSG winning the French league.
His time in France was successful but most of us will know of George Weah because of another league and one of the world’s biggest clubs. In 1995 the Italian giants AC Milan moved for Weah and they secured the Liberian for the Rossoneri.
It was in Italy that the name ‘Weah’ became known to most people in Britain. I first learned about ‘Mr George’ (I love that name) during weekends watching Channel 4’s coverage of Italian football. It was here that he could showcase his talents to a whole new audience who became transfixed with his pace, power and raw ability. People take it for granted the number of African players now plying their trade across Europe but this was not always the case so to see someone like Weah tear apart Italian defences was exciting and refreshing.
Mention Weah and most people will remember that goal. You know the one…
Before the days of Twitter, YouTube and social networking it was impossible for us to share the moment we all saw that goal. We couldn’t jump on our keyboards and ‘like’ the goal. We just simply had to wait until school or work the next day to say “did you see that yesterday?!?! What a goal!”. To us Weah became someone special because of that goal.
Weah won two domestic titles in Italy but more impressively he won both the European Player of the Year (Ballon d’Or) and World Player of the Year in 1995. No African player had won either of these awards previously and no African player has won them since. He also collected the African Player of the Year award on three occasions and was named African Player of the Century.
In 2000 Weah left Milan after five years to begin a short spell in England with Chelsea and then Manchester City. He finished his career quietly in the United Arab Emirates in 2003.
Internationally Weah turned out for Liberia on 60 occasions and it is here that the Weah story becomes interesting for off-the-field reasons.
Liberia is a very poor nation. Currently 85% of the population live below the poverty line and the country has suffered due to devastating civil wars and political corruption. This all means that having a national football team is probably fairly low on the list of priorities for the government. Step in George Weah. For years he essentially funded the entire setup. He paid for travel expenses, equipment and anything else that the football team needed. Experiencing real proper football outside Liberia also meant that Weah helped coach the team. This all culminated in Liberia qualifying for the African Cup of Nations for the first time ever in 1996.
After retiring things did not slow down for Weah and for many years he continued to help fund and organise the Liberian team. His profile in Liberia also meant that thousands upon thousands of children and young Liberians looked to Weah as an inspiration. He went from the slums of Monrovia to the international stage so why couldn’t they?
Weah is a UNICEF ambassador and a humanitarian. Having setup various footballing projects to get children back into education it maybe seemed natural for him to take that next step, politics. In 2005 Weah announced he was going to run for President of Liberia. Things started off well but he was eventually defeated, mainly down to his lack of experience and expertise. He is still very much involved in politics and is a national figure in Liberia. Something that will continue for many years.
One of the fascinating things about the career of George Weah is maybe how ‘normal’ it would seem nowadays. In the last ten years or so we have had high-profile African players like Eto’o, Drogba and the Toure brothers go on a similar journey. From small beginnings to international stages, and from charities to politics. This is now a well trodden path but Weah started all of that. It was Weah who paved the way for African footballers to be truly global stars. Yes we had a few big names before him like Roger Milla but nobody on the same level as Weah.
African football is they way it is now because of him. African players can achieve the things they can because of him, and football became more of a global game because of him.
All because of man named Mr George.