Who is Liberia’s George Weah, the Footballer Turned Presidential Candidate?

George Weah at CDC headquarters in Liberia.
Former Liberian footballer George Weah, pictured at his party's headquarters in Monrovia, April 28, wants to extend his dominance from the sporting sphere to the political by running for the country's presidency in 2017. ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images

The only African to ever win FIFA’s prestigious Ballon d’Or award for the world’s best footballer, to say that George Weah is a national hero in his home country of Liberia is an understatement.

The retired striker receives almost universal adoration in the West African nation, where he has reinvented himself as a capable politician and a presidential candidate in the 2005 election, in which he ultimately finished runner-up in a closely-fought run-off with incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Weah, 49, announced in April his intention to run for Liberia’s presidency in the 2017 election to swathes of diehard fans, clothed and in some cases painted in the blue color of his Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, which the footballer founded.

“Like many of you, I have been a victim of poverty,” said Weah in his announcement to supporters in the capital Monrovia. “Our gathering here today is about the future of our country and our people.”

His campaign has hit a snag in the early stages, however, after a warrant filed in a U.S. court in Georgia alleged that Weah was guilty of failing to pay child support—a crime that carries a 12-month prison sentence. The warrant was withdrawn after Weah’s lawyers spoke with court officials, but his legal team will have to travel to the U.S. for a hearing on the matter later in May, Reuters reported. The footballer’s CDC party has dismissed the allegations. “This is a calculated propaganda trying to diminish our political momentum,” said CDC spokesman Sam Manna of the warrant.

It remains to be seen how the issue will play out, but Weah will be keen to avoid such distractions in the early stages of his campaign. Born in a slum in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Weah plied his trade in his home country until Arsene Wenger, who was then in charge of French club AS Monaco, took him to Europe. During four seasons at the French side, Weah averaged almost a goal every two games and the Liberian has said he views the now-Arsenal manager as a father figure for the way he nurtured him in the crucial early stages of his career.

From Monaco, Weah went on to play for some of the world’s most glamorous clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. It was at Italian club AC Milan, however, where the forward had the most success, winning the Italian Serie A twice in 1996 and 1999. Weah was adored by Milan’s fans and scored several memorable goals, including a slalom dribble from his own penalty area that ended in a clinical finish against Verona in 1996.

As well as his Ballon d’Or triumph, Weah was also named African Footballer of the Year three times and designated as African Player of the Century in 1996. He is widely regarded as the best-ever African footballer, with Brazilian legend Pelé naming him among the 125 greatest-ever players in 2004 on the occasion of FIFA’s 100th anniversary.

Following the conclusion of Liberia’s second civil war in 2003, Weah announced his intention to run for the presidency. After taking Sirleaf to a second round in 2005, the footballer was beaten as his rival took 59.4 percent of the vote to his 40.6 percent. Since then, however, he has remained active on the political scene, running as CDC’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2011 elections, in which the party was again unsuccessful. In 2014, Weah was elected to the Liberian senate, defeating the president’s son Robert Sirleaf with 78 percent of the vote. Weah’s seat in Montserrado County includes Monrovia.

With the 2017 election in his sights and Liberia still struggling to recover from being at the center of an Ebola outbreak that has claimed thousands of lives since 2014, King George—as he is affectionately known by his fans—will not want any further distractions on the campaign trail.