George Weah
George Weah

Paynesville, Liberia, April 30, 2016 (AFP) – Two days after announcing a fresh bid to become president of Liberia, ex-football star George Weah sits munching a donut on the concrete steps of a suburban football pitch, barefoot and joking with his friends. Here, the carefully trimmed turf of former clubs AC Milan and Paris St Germain is replaced with simple chalk markings in the sand, and crowd numbers don’t edge higher than 50 during a 3-2 thriller won by his veterans’ team. “He’s a local boy, came from here,” says spectator Wilson Toba, looking on as the six-foot (1.84-metre) Weah begins his warm-up, catching the attention of skinny boys leaning on the walls of the stand. “We are poor people, and we all support him.”

Many Liberians still idolise Weah, 49, who announced his intention on Thursday to contest an election to replace President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf next year. Nowhere is that truer than in Paynesville, just east of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. The striker practises every Saturday and plays a match every Sunday at the neighbourhood’s Willis D. Knuckles Jr sports stadium, accompanied by some fellow former players from the national team.

The matches are held on the edge of a slum, with rubbish kept meticulously off the field but piled up nearby, as stray dogs search for shade from the punishing sun. Starting his career as a young man raised in poverty, Weah went on to play for a string of top-flight European clubs, becoming the first African player to win both the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or.

His political career has been less stellar so far, beginning with a failed first bid for the presidency in 2005 before a successful run for Liberia’s senate in 2014 representing the county to which Paynesville belongs. He will be counting on poor urban districts such as these as he seeks to build a coalition of support in the coming months, areas where his down-to-earth affability and approachable manner have a magnetic effect. Former Liberian national team player Jonah Sawieh plays with Weah every week, and watches as he parades up and down in the early stages of the game, calling out to the crowd in a PSG jersey with his name on the back. “He will always be the same and will always come to play with his people,” Sawieh says, before joining Weah’s defence in the second half.

Long ‘to-do’ list

Following a shocking fumble by a teammate of a goal beautifully set up by Weah, the full-time whistle blows and the former international changes his clothes before sitting down on the same steps. A circle of admirers gathers. “We came here to see our big brothers play,” recalls the ex-Chelsea player, gesturing to the pitch. “These young kids here to watch us are coming not only to watch football but also to understand the discipline of life.” The challenges of poverty, appalling education standards, yawning gaps in infrastructure and the country’s ongoing recovery from a civil war that ended in 2003 do not intimidate him, Weah says.

However, “if I look at my to-do list, there’s a lot of things,” he concedes, singling out Liberia’s crumbling schools as an example. “Sub-standard education is a security threat to our country. I went to school very late because I didn’t have the opportunity,” he says, referring to a degree in business administration he received in 2011. Weah has funded places for nursing assistants in Liberia, and with some graduating that day, he has to go to the ceremony, leaving with a final message for the weekend regulars. “If I am president of the Republic of Liberia you will see me play here. I will still be here because my community is my community.”

© 2016, Jennifer O’MAHONY. All rights reserved – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime News content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted. Post views count started 16/02/16