George Weah: Sports, business and African politics
WRITTEN BY THOMAS STONE
In Africa, it seems - more so than other places - fusions between sports and politics have been known to produce surprising and positive effects.
There is the canonical example of the Springboks in South Africa: the rugby team that helped to unify black and white populations in South Africa during the end of apartheid.
In 2011, as Outtara takes power in Ivory Coast, and that region begins to re-stabilise, we recall to mind the 2006 ceasefire between North and South. When Les Éléphants qualified for the World Cup, hostilities stopped, and Gbagbo declared an end to the civil war.
This spring, just a few hundred kilometers to the west of Abidijan, in Monrovia, a former FIFA World Player of the Year is running for the Vice Presidency of Liberia. He’s traded his football boots in for a pair of Mephisto Black Ambassadors. Originally entering the race with the intention to run for the Presidency of Liberia under the banner of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), Weah will now be running as Winston Tubman’s running mate.
The General Election to be held in Liberia this year is a far cry from the election that took place there over a decade ago. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current President, can be credited with changing the tone of the political debate, but she also is burdened with compromises that she’s had to make along the way.
In the upcoming election, Weah and Tubman, of the CDC, will face Sirleaf (the Unity Party), Brumskine (the Liberty Party), and a host of other contenders - including the infamous Prince Johnson, a former warlord, who will be running under the banner of the Destiny Party.
Leaving all questions of Weah’s political legitimacy aside, a quick examination of his track record as a philanthropist is an inspiration.
Weah emerged from Clara Town, a slum in Monrovia, to become the ‘African Football Player of the Century’, an honour he was awarded on top of multiple awards including the FIFA World Footballer award, Ballon d’Or (European Player of the Year) and African Player of the Year in 1995 – the third time he won the accolade after receiving the accolade previously in 1989 and 1994.
Instead of withdrawing to Europe or the United States to live a comfortable life of luxury after raking in millions as a football player, Weah remained committed to his country of origin, supporting philanthropic and educational initiatives in Liberia throughout the Civil War and returning to run for President in 2005.
Unlike so many of his successful peers of his generation, Weah’s enduring commitment to his country has created real change and opportunity for many of the underprivileged youth in Liberia. In particular, his Junior Professionals Football Club encourages players to stay in school and several of his other ventures have donated their proceeds to children’s programmes in Liberia.
Both as a role-model and as a philanthropist, Weah has innovated real roads forward for many young Liberians. Whether or not these efforts will bear fruit as political capital remains to be seen.