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Weah, George

George Weah

1966–

Soccer player, politician, philanthropist

One of the great soccer players of all time, and perhaps the most famous Liberian in history, George Weah is called "King George" and "Big Papa," as well as his African name "Oppong," by his fellow Liberians. A millionaire striker—a term used for forwards, or goal-scorers—in 1995 Weah became the first African to be named World Player of the Year by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world soccer federation. That same year, while playing for the Italian team AC Milan, European fans awarded Weah the Golden Ball as the best European Player of the Year, the first African to win that award. Weah has used his fame and fortune to help promote peace and to bring improved healthcare to his impoverished, war-torn homeland. In 2005 he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Liberia.

Climbed the Ranks of Liberian Soccer

George Weah was born in a village outside Monrovia, Liberia, on October 1, 1966. Weah's father was a mechanic and his mother brought in money by selling goods from a table set up along Monrovia's waterfront. They separated when George was a baby and he became one of 13 children raised by his devoutly Christian grandmother, Emma Klon Jleh Brown. The family lived in a shack over a drained mangrove swamp on Bushrod Island in Monrovia. Weah was quoted in Sports Illustrated in 2001: "All the minutes and seconds and hours in my career, my entire life, I dedicate to my grandmother." In addition to selling popcorn, gambling, and searching through garbage for bottles to sell, Weah spent his youth playing barefoot soccer with homemade rag balls on the streets of the Clartown neighborhood of Monrovia.

In April of 1980 when Weah was 13, he watched from the beach as a firing squad killed 13 officials of assassinated president William Tolbert's government, following a military coup led by Samuel Doe. Weah told Rob Walker of the New York Times Magazine that Tolbert's overthrow "empowered us in a positive way. After the coup, everything was open in Liberia. We could find jobs." However their relief was short-lived as Doe turned into brutal dictator.

Weah attended high school on soccer scholarships but was an indifferent student and dropped out after his junior year. He became a telephone operator. However by 1981 Weah was moving rapidly up through Liberia's best soccer teams: the Young Survivors, the Mighty Barolle, the Invincible Eleven. Weah was quoted in the UNESCO Courier: "Every day we'd play from morning 'til night. We didn't have a coach, so we made it up as we went along, warming up and running around together. We all chipped in what we could to buy kit and footballs." Weah's earnings with the Invincible Eleven, the league champions, helped to support his grandmother and siblings. President Doe named Weah national team captain and distributed a briefcase of cash to the players when they won. Doe invited Weah to the presidential palace to discuss soccer strategy. As Liberia's economy collapsed, Doe sent Weah and his team to Brazil for further training.

Entered European Soccer

While leading the Invincible Eleven, Weah drew the attention of a scout for Cameroon's Tonnerre de Yaoundé. It was Weah's first semi-professional experience and, after helping that team win a national title in 1988, he signed with AS Monaco in France.

Initially Weah was out of his league, but ambition, talent, and hard work turned him into a star team player and role model. Weah credited Monaco's coach, Arsène Wenger, with his success, as he called Wenger up on stage at the 1995 FIFA awards ceremony. "He made me the footballer I am today," FIFA magazine quoted Weah as saying. "He taught me to persevere, to live a decent life, and to play fair. He initiated me into European ways, but he understood my African origins and respected them. He let me play my game, my way."

In 1992 Weah moved to Paris where he led Paris-St. Germain to three French Cup championships and the 1994 French League title. In 1995 he signed with AC Milan in Italy, leading the team to Italian league championships in 1996 and 1999.

Helped War-Torn Liberia

As he traveled the world playing soccer, the suddenly wealthy Weah developed a taste for fancy clothes and cars. Nevertheless he often returned to Liberia, despite the chaos and violence under the rule of President Charles Taylor. Weah decried the use of children as soldiers. He spoke at schools, encouraging girls to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies and AIDS and to take up soccer. In 1994 he recruited children from throughout the country for the Junior Professionals, a soccer team whose only requirement was that the players remain in school.

That same year Weah helped UNICEF to publicize its Liberian immunization campaign. Beginning in 1997 as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Weah helped raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and promote other UNICEF projects in Liberia and Ghana. In addition to supporting educational and vocational programs in Liberia, Weah was involved in the process of disarming the warring factions and rehabilitating child soldiers and he built a children's hospital in Monrovia. In 1998 with eight other soccer stars and singer Frisbie Omo Isibor, Weah recorded a CD, Lively Up Africa, to raise money for UNICEF children's programs.

In the spring of 1995 Weah's grandmother died and in her honor he converted back to Christianity after ten years as a practicing Muslim. In 1996 Weah traveled with the Liberian national soccer team, the Lone Star, to South Africa where he met Nelson Mandela. According to a New York Times Magazine article, Mandela hailed him as "the pride of Africa". It was Weah's political awakening.

At a Glance …

Born George Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah on October 1, 1966, in Monrovia, Liberia; married Clar Weah; children: George Jr., Martha, Timothy George. Religion: Catholic. Politics: Congress for Democratic Change, Liberia.

Career: Young Survivors of Clartown, Liberia, soccer player, 1983–84; Bongrange of Bonguine, Liberia, soccer player, 1984–85; Mighty Barolle, Liberia, soccer player, 1985–86; Invincible Eleven, Liberia, soccer player, 1986–87; Tonnerre de Yaoundé, Cameroon, soccer player, 1987–88; AS Monaco, France, soccer player, 1988–92; Paris-St. Germain, France, soccer player, 1992–95; AC Milan, Italy, soccer player, 1995–2000; Chelsea, UK, soccer player, 2000; Manchester City, UK, soccer player, 2000; Olympique de Marseilles, France, soccer player, 2000–01; Al Zazira, United Arab Emirates, soccer player, 2001–02; George Weah Foundation, founder; UNICEF, goodwill ambassador, 1997–2005; Royal Communications, Monrovia, founder, 2004; presidential candidate, Liberia, 2005.

Memberships: Junior Professionals, president; FIFA, committee member.

Selected awards: FIFA, World Player of the Year, 1995; FIFA, Fair Play Award, 1996; FIFA, Hall of Fame, 1999; FIFA, Centennial Order of Merit, 2004; Onze Mondial, Golden Ball as European Player of the Year, 1995; African Player of the Century, 1998; ESPY, Arthur Ashe Courage Award, 2004; Transcoast London Ltd., Eagle Award, 2004.

Addresses: Agent—Edge Sports International, 3649 W. Chase St., Suite #100, Skokie, IL 60076.

In May of 1996 Weah called on the United Nations (UN) to take over Liberia as a trust territory. Three days later some 70 followers of Charles Taylor attacked Weah's seaside home near Monrovia, threatening the men and raping his female relatives. They stole or destroyed everything of value and burned the house. At the time Weah was in Italy and his family was at home in New York. Although he rebuilt the house, Weah found it impossible to live with its memories and turned it into the King's Lodge to house the Lone Star players.

Saved Liberian Soccer

Despite these horrors Weah continued to return to Liberia, handing out money to people in the streets and hospitals. He pointed out that Liberian taxpayers had paid for him to develop his soccer skills. Sports Illustrated quoted Weah in 2001: "Everything I have, I owe to the Liberian people. I give back what they gave me."

By 2000 Weah was playing for his third professional team in ten months, had been switched from striker to midfield, and had begun to consider retiring. Meanwhile he had spent nearly two million dollars keeping the Lone Star team going during the civil war. He had moved their training camp to the Ivory Coast, paid the players' salaries, and bought their equipment and jerseys. In June of 2000 Weah took over as their coach, technical director, and star player.

Making a shaky peace with Taylor, Weah funded and led the Lone Star team through the 2001 qualification rounds for the World Cup. Sports Illustrated quoted Francois Massaquoi, Liberia's minister of youth and sports, in 2001: "George Weah and football are the only things we have to hold on to. Football is the glue that holds this country together." The team won nine of their first ten games and fans started calling for Weah to become president of Liberia. However when their World Cup bid failed, Weah fled Liberia, fearing imprisonment or worse at the hands of Taylor. On June 11, 2005, at the age of 38, Weah scored three goals in all-star farewell match held in his honor in Marseille, France.

Ran for the Liberian Presidency

Rumors of a Weah presidential candidacy dated back to his 1996 UN statement. However he steadfastly insisted that he had no interest in politics. His wife was vehemently opposed to his running for office, fearing that he would be assassinated. However in September of 2004 the newly-formed Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), made up of Liberian professionals and expatriates, begged Weah to become their candidate in the first election since the end of the 14-year civil war.

Weah's humble beginnings, tremendous popularity, and lack of ties to former corrupt regimes, made him the favorite when he launched his 2005 campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Liberians remained refugees and with 85 percent unemployment the nation's economy and infrastructure were devastated. Monrovia lacked running water and electricity. At a campaign rally he told his followers, as reported in Time International, "I don't need political experience to give you lights and water, or to see that the roads are bad. I know where you come from." African Business quoted Weah: "Liberian people—the people who have been devastated by years of war—believe in me, because I am committed to the nation and people. As I look in your faces tonight, I see that I am your future. As I look into your faces tonight, I see that I am your destiny, I see that your dream will be fulfilled." Although Weah was criticized as uneducated, with scant experience in politics, economics, or business, many of his supporters found this to be in his favor, since they believed it was the intellectuals who had wrecked their country. Furthermore, as a millionaire philanthropist, Liberians needn't worry that Weah would steal the country's money as previous leaders had done. Since thousands of relatively wealthy and politically influential Liberians had fled to the United States in the past quarter-century, Weah found himself campaigning in New York, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia.

There were 22 candidates in the race, including former militia leaders. Weah's candidacy was challenged on the claim that he had become a French citizen, but the objection was overruled. In the October 2005 election Weah garnered 28 percent of the votes, although he claimed to have won 62 percent. The November run-off election between Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had won 20 percent in the primary, took place under the scrutiny of 15,000 UN peacekeepers. Sirleaf won 59 percent of the popular vote to become Africa's first elected female president. Weah charged election fraud and, although he called for peace, his supporters clashed with UN and Liberian police in Monrovia. Observers called the election fair, and Weah dropped his complaint after African leaders intervened.

Weah resumed his business and humanitarian interests. In 2004 he had founded Royal Communications, the parent company of a Monrovia TV and radio station, King's FM. His investments abroad included a bottled water plant in Zanzibar.

Weah had met his wife Clar, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Brooklyn, while opening an account at the New York bank where she worked. The Weahs first lived in Staten Island, New York, and Weah owned a restaurant, The Flaky Crust, in Brooklyn. They later moved to Queens, New York, where Weah's older son and daughter played in the Long Island Junior Soccer League. The family then moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Clar opened a Caribbean restaurant and grocery. As of 2006 Weah had been named an African Football Ambassador to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa and a film about his political awakening was in the works. He also was providing support for UNITAID, a multinational initiative to purchase drugs to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in developing countries.

Sources

Periodicals

African Business, October 2005, pp. 52-53.

African News Service, April 25, 2006.

Christian Science Monitor, November 19, 2004, p. 6.

Daily Variety, March 1, 2006, p. 4.

New African, December 2005, pp. 20-21; January 2006, pp. 38-39.

New York Times Magazine, August 21, 2005, pp. 24-28.

Soccer Digest, January 2002, pp. 20-24.

Sports Illustrated, April 16, 2001, p. 56+; July 4, 2005, p. 22.

Time International, July 30, 2001, p. 62; September 5, 2005, p. 13.

UNESCO Courier, April 2001, p. 4.

On-line

"George Manneh Oppong Weah," The Liberian FA, www.liberiansoccer.com/George%20Weah.htm (July 2, 2006).

"George Weah," UNICEF People, www.unicef.org/people/people_george_weah.html (July 3, 2006).

"An Idol for African Footballers," FIFA, www.fifa.com/fifa/pub/magazine/fm2-96.2.html (July 3, 2006).

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