George Weah: Ballon d’Or put me and Liberia on the map
IN 1995 George Weah became the first – and to date only – African to win the highest individual award there is in world football: The Ballon d’Or. In an exclusive interview with AFM, the Liberian icon looks back at his remarkable career.
Whenever football fans name the best players never to have played at the World Cup finals, Weah is one of the first to be mentioned. Although the big striker played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe (Monaco, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea), he had the ‘misfortune’ of being born in Liberia – a country without a strong footballing pedigree. Weah sees it very differently.
“I am very proud to be Liberian. I love the country and I love the people,” he insisted. “Of course I would have liked to have played at the World Cup, but I achieved so much in my career as a footballer that I can’t have any complaints. The only thing that is disappointing, is that so many other Lone Star players never got to play at the World Cup and did not have the personal success I had.”
After winning the Liberian league with Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven, Weah had a short stint in Cameroon, before joining AS Monaco in 1988. At the time the French club was coached by Arsene Wenger. It was the start of a relationship that has lasted to this day, and when Weah won the World Player award he called Wenger onto the stage and gave him the award, saying he deserved it more than he did.
It was the mark of a footballer who, despite winning just about every individual award there is, has always put the team’s interests before his own. That famously even went to financially assisting his cash-strapped country for some of their World Cup qualifying matches.
After playing at Monaco for four seasons, he joined PSG and stayed with them until 1995, which was the pinnacle of his career. Although his club did not win the French Ligue 1 title, they won the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue, and Weah picked up a slew of individual honours including the African Footballer of the Year, Champions League top scorer, European Footballer of the Year and of course the two global awards existing at the time: the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
“When I started out, my dream was to play professional football,” Weah reflected. “That was my dream. I did not dream of winning the Ballon d’Or or FIFA Player of the Year award. I wanted to play professionally and achieve as much as I could.
“It was really about the love for the game. But then of course winning the awards was very special. I think it was recognition for all the work that I put in during my career. And I was particularly proud because I think it was important for my country. They celebrated with me and it put Liberia on the map.”
After his success in 1995, Weah moved to AC Milan, where he won two Scudettos and scored what is often considered one of the great individual goals of all time in 1996 against Verona. He added the FA Cup in England with Chelsea as he wound down his football career at the turn of the century and retired in 2003.
A new career
Already a leader and legend in his country, Weah turned to politics after hanging up his boots. In December 2014, he won election for a place on the Liberian Senate – becoming the first sportsman elected to the legislature in the African country. Asked if it was easier scoring goals than running a country, Weah laughs.
“Whatever you do in life, you have to do it with commitment and perseverance.
“That was my approach on the football field and that is my approach now in politics. I am committed to helping my people and my country, just as much as I was committed to helping my team when I was a player.”
Although no longer in active football, Weah remains connected to the sport and the Liberian national team.
Several of the players who played with Weah in the Lone Stars when they came within one point of qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup are now coaching the country’s various national teams and Weah often meets with them.
“I will always be involved in sport, and I am the chair of the Sports Commission. Sport is so important to people. It can help people. I am where I am today because of football, and if I can give back something to the people of Liberia, then I want to do that.” – African Football Media