His most memorable goal was a solo lung-bursting run from his team, AC Milan’s penalty area beating almost all the opposing team, Verona’s players en route before dispatching the ball into the net. Twenty-one years later former Chelsea star George Weah has won Liberia’s presidential run-off election and will succeed incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf next month, the country’s first successful democratic transition in over 70 years.
Weah, 51, is still fondly remembered at Stamford Bridge where he scored on his debut for the west London side against rivals Tottenham Hotspurs. Former club mate Netherlands defender Mario Melchiot told BBC World Service: “He was a great player, but also – what a person. After he came to Chelsea he walked in the dressing room and asked me: ‘Can I sit next to you?’ Can you imagine? I said: ‘Dude, you can sit wherever you want’.
“We used to call him ‘Mr Weah’, because he was a top man. His personality and the game, together – that made him who he is today. Now, having been elected president, he has got what he has been fighting for for so long.”
Weah had arrived at Stamford Bridge as one of world football’s most-feared goal-poachers, the first and only African to have won the Ballon d’Or and World Player of the Year awards. The Liberian came on as a second-half substitute just hours after arriving in England from Italy and headed the only goal of the match. He left the Blues with an FA Cup medal.
At his party headquarters outside Monrovia, tears streamed down his face as he greeted supporters from a balcony. Below, hundreds of young people sang and danced to a live performance of Hipco, Liberian hip hop music popular with the country’s impoverished youth.
“Success for George Weah is victory for the whole country,” a 47-year-old engineer named Randall Zarkpah said as he walked home with his young son through streets ringing with honking car horns and loud cheers as dusk fell.
“When you feel sick for some time and you receive proper medication – that is how I feel now. He will be good for our country. He is King George!”
With 98.1% of the vote counted, Weah led with 61.5% to Vice President Joseph Boakai’s 38.5 percent, National Elections Commission Chairman Jerome Korkoyah told reporters in the capital Monrovia on Thursday.
Weah grew up in Clara Town slum in Monrovia and went on to become the only African to win Fifa World Player of the Year, starring for AC Milan, Paris St Germain and Chelsea.
His popularity at home fuelled a previous run for president, in 2005. He won the first round then but lost the second round to Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected as African head of state, whom he will now succeed.
His rags-to-riches story helped him tap into dissatisfaction with Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year tenure. She drew a line under years of civil war but drew criticism for failing to root out corruption and persistent poverty.
“My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation,” Weah wrote on Twitter after the results were announced. “I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on.”
Weah’s critics, however, say he has offered few concrete policy proposals. His choice of running mate has also raised eyebrows: Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is serving 50 years in a British prison for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.
“I think Weah is not fit for the work. He will see it,” said Anthony Mason, 34, who had huddled around radios at the headquarters of Boakai’s Unity Party for the results.
Weah looked set to sweep 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties in the run-off. Turnout in Tuesday’s vote stood at 56%, the election commission said.
But Boakai said he doubted that the vote was “free, fair and transparent”, without elaborating. He did not say whether he might challenge the eventual result.
The second round was delayed by more than a month after the third-place finisher in October’s first round, backed by Boakai, alleged fraud. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the challenge.
The US-based Carter Center and National Democratic Institute said there had been notable improvements in the handling of the run-off, echoing positive assessments from other international observers.
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic. But the last democratic transfer of power occurred in 1944, a military coup took place in 1980 and a 14-year civil war ended only in 2003 but a devastating Ebola epidemic three years ago set the clock back for the west African country.
- With additional reports from Reuters