George Weah (left) and his wife Clar in 1996: “I always had the interests of Liberia. My people petitioned that they were looking for a true leader, a leader that would respect human rights, a leader that would respect developing Liberia, a leader the world would trust to work with, that the people trust. They chose me. I’m a man of the people.” (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
He has yet to play his farewell soccer match and already George Weah is ready to go from kick one around to handling some intriguing political footballs.
The former FIFA player of the year is ready to take on the greatest challenge of his life — running for president for his native Liberia.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Weah is taking this important step because he has always been involved in social causes in the soccer arena, from speaking out the former Liberian government to taking $50,000 out of his pocket to pay for the Liberian national team’s expenses during World Cup qualifying to stopping the use of children warrior in his country’s civil war.
An unexperienced politician, the 38-year-old Weah still felt that he could make a difference.
“I always had the interests of Liberia,” Weah said last week when he was in New York to help promote the city’s 2012 Olympic bid. “My people petitioned that they were looking for a true leader, a leader that would respect human rights, a leader that would respect developing Liberia, a leader the world would trust to work with, that the people trust. They chose me. I’m a man of the people.”
Weah, one of several candidates for the October election, said he will start campaigning in April.
“I’m hoping the election will be transparent,” said Weah, who lived in Staten Island and Queens for years before moving to Pembroke Pines, Fla. “I hope the people in Liberia chose the leader well. It is important to give a fair try to all of the aspirants.
“My chances of winning? I have a 100 percent of winning because the game has not been played. . . . I’m doing everything to win.”
His platform is basic: Unite the country. To do that, Weah has to make sure there is safe drinking water and give electricity to places that hasn’t had any in 15 years and to upgrade the education program.
“But first and foremost, peace and unification to all Liberians,” he said. “With peace and stability, you can have development.
“My passions are great. The fact they want to give me an opportunity, I’m committed with a conviction. I know I can do it.”
His wife, Clar, a Brooklyn native whom he met in a bank several years ago, gave Weah some sage advice.
“She’s a very clever and very brave woman,” he said. “She said: ‘If you want to work for the interests of your people, people have called upon you. I think.my life is to help you go through life in a positive way and they support you. just know that you’re going there because the people want you, the fight should be for the people, not like other people who just go into power for their own personal gain.’ That was good advice.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Weah is probably the best-known Liberian. But he didn’t see the election as a popularity contest.
“I don’t think the Liberian people choose me to be a leader because of my popularity, now. they choose me because of my heart,” he said. “They know i am a credible person and try to make the lives of the Liberian people better. It’s not because I’m popular. My popularity is the appreciation they have shown to me. I am a true son of the side. I respect them and they respect me. We are moving in the same direction. I’m happy that at least my own people can recognize that I’m a good person. I can go for that.”
Weah’s critics say he is too inexperienced, too naive politically to be president in a crowded race.
Maybe, maybe not.
Weah received a nasty introduction to politics in 1996 when he said he supported the idea of Liberia becoming a trust territory under UN supervision. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia and president Charles Taylor, however, did not like Weah’s remarks and they retaliated. Weah’s relatives living in a seaside mansion near Monrovia, the country’s capital, reportedly were flogged. Members of the Front, who looted the house and set it ablaze, raped two of Weah’s teenage cousins.
“I can tell you, my heart bled through all of the civil crises,” Weah said. “The cries and tears came to my face. At least today we have peace and stability. it is not an easy thing to go through. I said to myself, if there is no country, at least I am Liberian. All I can do to restore the country, is to do positive things.
“When I fought to be one of the greatest players, at least that image was staying because all the images you saw on television was the killings and the war are negative images. People knew that at least Liberia was still on the map.”