They say that soccer and politics never mix, but what happens when they do? In Liberia, former World Player of the Year George Weah first ran for president in 2005, a year after the country’s bloody civil war had ended. He lost out to current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Now he’s studying in America to prepare for another campaign in 2011. But in a war ravaged country like Liberia, some critics fear the soccer star could be dangerously out of his depth. ‘How to Become a President’ goes on the road in Liberia to canvass the views of Liberians themselves.
It’s the World Cup in Africa. Some say politics and football don’t mix but what happens if they do?
George Weah’s testing this age-old adage. The former Player of the Year has already run unsuccessfully for President of Liberia once. Now he’s studying in America for another campaign. Today George has been helping train a team of young people and veterans in Ghana, next week he might be back home in nearby Liberia or in Florida USA where he’s studying business administration and criminal justice… getting the education which like many of these kids, he’s never had. Few footballers have lived in a more globalized world than George Weah.
“Coming from the ghetto I have endured the pain of suffering and that gave me the sense of being there for people because I know that it’s not good for people to suffer,” he says. “But you know I came from that environment and it’s not a pleasant environment for people to be. So I want to strive to help to be there for people – because we were fifteen in a home that we all grew up to love each other and that taught me the sense of loving and the sense of caring that is important to me… when I was playing, you know, loving people, making people happy, all my friends around me and that’s how I can help them.”
George was brought up in the Claratown district of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It’s a country struggling with the legacy of civil war, and grinding poverty. With economic growth slowing to an estimated two per cent a year, average income is still only two hundred dollars. Average life expectancy is only 45 years.
His love for the ball helped George Weah outgrow his childhood environment. The boy from the Monrovia slums grew out to be one of the world’s best football strikers, playing for clubs like Chelsea and AC Milan.
Nowadays George’s home in Liberia is a little more uptown. In the early Seventies football coach Pampeen discovered George. Pampeen’s still welcome in George’s new home and showed us round while George was away in Ghana.
“George came up in a native way, he used to play around with friends. I want to show you the football we used to play, made of papers/plastic because during those days we had no football and this is what George and I and other friends used to play. He was a poor man’¦ Yeah he was a poor man, when he was growing up, but he loved football so much.”
In 2005, George stood for President. ‘The man who’s up but remembers those who are down’¦’ that’s how George Weah sold himself. Uneducated, with no political power base of his own, he founded his own political party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), and ran for President in the first elections since the end of the 20-year long civil war. And now he wants to stand again.
Current CDC Secretary General Eugene Nagbe explains: “The founder of our party Mr. Weah came into politics because he felt very disappointed by the way the country is. The poverty is still on the rise and there’s nobody caring. So that’s how the CDC came about to be formed. We are not traditional politicians, we are Liberians who are convinced that we can help.”
But not everyone thinks he should be in politics. Fellow footballer Jonathan Sogbie says: “Mister George Weah my friend and brother has only been concerned with the playing of football. He has achieved the zenith, the epiphany of football. Today he’s one of the world best. But when it comes to administration viz a viz politics, I don´t think this is his niche. It´s like asking the President of Liberia today to be the coach of Barcelona.”
Lifealso visits the school set up by the George Weah Foundation in Claratown where he grew up. With projects like this, George Weah wants to be seen not just as the champion of child soldiers but ghetto youth generally.
But can he really change the fate of the country’s poor young people?
“Definitely I will change their fate and I have done it already, and I have used my own funds by educating young people, and I think one of my primary goals is to make sure we educate people and make them into meaningful citizens. I was one of them before and I can take them from that situation and they can be better people because each and every Liberian should take part to rebuild our country.”
But as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has found, rebuilding an impoverished and insecure country is no easy task. Average income is still only US$200 a year. Yet the President is seen by many to be losing her fight against corruption. And that’s left a big opening for George Weah’s party, the Congress for Democratic Change. He already took a big leap: the CDC won the 2009 by-elections in Montserrado County, home of the national government.
Can a footballer be a successful President? Sometime before the next World Cup, or even maybe the one after that’¦ Liberia may yet have chance to find out. Till then George Weah remains on the edge of his greatest goal.
For an analysis of his failed 2005 stand for the Presidency, read this BBC profile.
See also The Road to 2010 Project, which has collaborated in the making of this programme.
The Dutch organisation lokaalmondiaal has assisted in the making of this programme.