George Weah, 51, emerged from Liberia’s slums to become a superstar footballer in the 1990s, and has leveraged his status as a revered figure among young people in his second run for the presidency.
Now Weah has a confirmed place in the runoff round against incumbent Vice-President Joseph Boakai on November 7, the result of 12 years spent seeking to build political credibility to match his huge popularity.
The first African player to win both FIFA’s World Player of the Year trophy and the Ballon d’Or, Weah was largely absent from Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil war period, playing for a string of top-flight European teams including PSG and AC Milan.
After running unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2005, when he was defeated by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Weah — whom he now hopes to succeed — says he has “gained experience” since becoming a senator in 2014.
Another fruitless run for the vice-presidency on the ticket of presidential candidate Winston Tubman in 2011 brought him to further prominence among the nation’s voters, many of whom say it is “Weah’s turn” this time.
Weah has put education and job creation at the centre of his platform, in line with most of Liberia’s 19 other presidential candidates.
Surrounded by cheering supporters after casting his vote on Tuesday, Weah declared his “love for this country will make me a good president”.
– Beloved by young and poor –
Younger voters overwhelmingly favour Weah, who is idolised in his country as “Mister George”.
A member of the Kru ethnic group mired in poverty, Weah was raised by his grandmother on a reclaimed swamp in one of the worst slums of Monrovia.
“Grassroots citizens identify with George Weah, considering that he is close to their day-to-day experience,” explains Ibrahim Al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
One of his most fierce critics, longtime opposition leader Charles Brumskine, has derisively called Weah “a rather accomplished football player,” saying he is not prepared to run a country.
“Senator Weah who talks about change is completely out of his league, we are talking governance here, we aren’t talking to sports,” Brumskine said during campaigning.
But many voters see a poor boy from the slums who made good against the odds.
“I believe that whenever we give him a chance, he will be able to give a better Liberia to the youth and the homeless,” Andrew Janjay Johnson, a shoeshiner in a Monrovia market, told AFP.
– ‘Vague’ platform –
Other critics accuse Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) of having too vague a political platform, and have challenged his long absences from the senate since being elected in a race he won over Sirleaf’s son.
Weah has also fended off barbs over his vice-presidential pick, Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of jailed former president and warlord Charles Taylor.
Howard-Taylor is however also a respected senator in her own right, bringing him important votes in the key county of Bong, and along with Sirleaf is one of few powerful women in Liberian public life.
Weah is married to Clar Weah, and his son, Timothy, signed a pro contract with Paris Saint-Germain in July.