This story was published in Soccer Magazine in 1997. It is used with permission

George and Clar Weah in 1996. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

By Michael Lewis

George Weah wasn’t always a good-two shoes type of person who would speak out against the atrocities in his native country of Liberia or post money so his national team could continue to participate in World Cup qualifying.

Way back when he was young, Weah was unruly and undisciplined.

“I did all very bad things before I was successful,” he said. “I grew up on the streets. I did a lot of crazy things. I smoked and I drank. When the time came, I went back to the way it’s supposed to be. If you don’t have self-disciplined, you don’t have anything.”

But once Weah became focused, there has been no stopping him – on and off the field.

“He is the most popular figure in Liberia,” said countryman Jerry Wion, news and editorial director of the U.S.-based African News Forum. “Imagine him sponsoring a game for his team in another country.”

Weah has learned how high the price of fame can be, and it’s not just in dollars and cents.

The veteran forward has taken a considerable amount of money out of his pocket to finance Liberia’s World Cup effort. But the real tool has been in the emotional sense.

Weah, everyone’s international player of the year in 1995 after a brilliant season with defending Italian champion A.C. Milan, lost his house and his cars in his native Liberia and had two cousins raped after he made comments about the fate of the war-torn country.

According to friends, Weah is a private, soft-spoken person who prefers to let his playing rather than his mouth do the talking.

“He is the same person that I knew,” said Rwandan native Aida Brooks, who had a restaurant in Monrovia, Liberia, which Weah frequented many times. “He has not changed. He is a quiet person.”

In fact, Brooks said that she is so close to and has so much respect for Weah that she calls the star “my brother.”

“He is not a politician,” Brooks said. “He is a sports future. He is not one to make public statements. Sometimes it gets you into trouble.”

Weah discovered that the hard way in May when he spoke out against rebels in Liberia, which has been ripped apart by civil war.

In an interview, Weah said he supported the idea of Liberia becoming a trust territory under UN Supervision forever “to make Liberians believe in democracy, to make us believe in human rights.”

Weah was in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, preparing a home for his mother and relatives who were displaced because of the civil war.

Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, did not like what Weah said and retaliated. Weah’s relatives living in a seaside mansion near Monrovia, Liberia reportedly were flogged and two teenage cousins were raped by members of the front, who then looted the house and set it ablaze.

Weah would rather not talk about politics.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “They found my house and destroyed all my property. People got offended that I made that statement. I’m just trying to keep a low profile.

“In Africa, there is no freedom of speech. I wish I was in America.”

Weah already has been in America. He played for the FIFA World All-Stars in the quadrennial all-star game Giants Stadium last July.

Weah will participate more for the causes – proceeds from the doubleheader will benefit SOS Children’s Villages – than the fame. He wants to work for UNICEF after he retires.

He already knows about giving. Weah has put up $50,000 of his money to finance Liberia’s World Cup qualifying effort. The team has been forced to play all of its home matches at a neutral site in Accra, Ghana.

After dropping a 2-1 away decision to Gambia, Liberia rebounded with a 4-0 victory on June 23 to reach the next round. Weah had a goal and assist in the match, although his biggest assist came from is bank account.

“Liberia is my country,” Weah said about his financial backing. “Anything I can do to help the national team, the better. It’s most important to organize it.”

Weah, 30, is looking for a sponsor to defray the costs, which will only grow as Liberia moves toward France ’98.

“I do my best to promote the national team,” he said. “It’s the only good team we have. We do our best to promote a good image for our country and set an example so the politicians will lay down their arms.

“We’ve got good players and good team. We’ll try to do our best and try to do our best to get to the World Cup.”

A crowd of 25,000 watched the match; many of the Liberian exiles and refugees came from neighboring Ivory Coast and Togo. Weah had his Liberian teammates train in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

“We’d love to play at home in front of the home crowd,” Weah said. “We have to understand the situation. We play for security.”

The World Cup is Weah’s biggest goal. Qualifying for France ’98 would be a sweet homecoming for the 6-1, 170-lb. Weah, who once played for Monaco (1988-92) and Paris St. Germain (1992-95) in the French First Division.

Liberia’s next hurdle in Group 2 is with Egypt, Namibia and Tunisia in one of the five African groups (five African countries will qualify).

“We’ve got a great chance to qualify for the World Cup,” Weah said. “Every player in the world wants to play in the World Cup.

“I’ve won a lot of awards. If our generation allows us to go to the World Cup, it would be great. Even if someone beats us 9-0, the idea is going there.”

His proudest honor to date? Being name the top European player and then FIFA Player of the Year. But that honor wasn’t for himself, but rather for an entire continent.

“It put Africa on the map,” Weah said. “I was the first African player to win the European award. For Africa, it’s a great thing.”

He also wants to complete his playing career in the USA – for the New York/New Jersey MetrosStars in MLS.

His wife Clar comes from Brooklyn, N.Y. and they both want him to settle in New York after his contract with Milan runs out in 1999 (Weah has friends and family in the New York City area and owns several houses and a restaurant int the city).

“I’d be happy to play here,” he said. “I’ve got friends and family here.”

Weah wouldn’t mind playing for the MetroStars right now, but his transfer fee probably would range between $12 to $15 million, would be costly and unrealistic for the first-year MLS. MetroStars general manager Charlie Stillitano said. Weah’s salary with Milan is $1.5 million and probably could be picked up by MLS sponsors.

“We’d love to have someone like George Weah,” Stillitano said. “George would be ideal here.”

But before he moves to the U.S., Weah has some unfinished business to attend to – from helping Liberia reach the World Cup to finding a way to get him homeland in order.