George Weah might see his election as Liberia’s next President as the beginning of an end to a tough, rancorous battle that has lasted more than a decade towards a lifetime.
However, footballers around the world (and all sportspeople) who are contemplating politics or already in its corridors have now found for themselves a worthy reference.
Henceforth, all things are possible.
Politics anywhere can be full of ridiculing and despising—to say the least—and footballers have borne the brunt of this peculiar, disdainful act of human behavior, turning their fame to disadvantage and electing their darkest moments.
Weah is the first footballer to be elected President of a country but not the only footballer-turned-politician or an ex-footballer conscious of the socioeconomic environment in which he or she lives.
Gianni Rivera of Italy, Ramon Pavlyuchenko of Russia, Romario of Brazil and Marc Wilmots of Belgium—just to name few—entered politics after their illustrious playing careers.
It was revealed recently that Ronaldinho Gaucho is most likely to be added to the list, poised to run for Minas Gerias province seat in the lower house of the Brazilian parliament later this year.
To be frank, it was always going to be harder getting a slot in politics than scoring or preventing a goal. It has been a very rocky, dusky road for athletes of the world’s most popular sport. Public opinion still remains divided over whether or not it is right for an ex-footballer to occupy any political position. Some bring forth cottons and ribbons while others bring poisoned potions and lamentation to the discussion.
Meanwhile, these ex-footballers, especially Weah, remain defiant against any form of discrimination against them. He knew that when they say “The sky is the limit”, they mean for everyone—sportspeople, musicians, painters, writers, journalists, academics, just everyone else.
‘The last Kick’
Maradona was perhaps the first to experience a vile rebuke of his personality. The football genius of Buenos Aires had joined protesters at an anti-Bush protest in the Argentine capital at the 2005 Summit of the Americas, calling the American President an “idiot and murderer”. He favored the Alternative for the Americas that was proffered by the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez.
Maradona had also turned his television show —“The Night of the Number 10”—into a platform for criticism against the United States and western ideologies. Maradona sported a tattoo of the slain Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara on his right bicep. Vicente Fox, the Mexican President at the time, said—as captured in “Maradona: The Hand of God” by Jimmy Burns — that Maradona “has good foot for kicking but not a good brain for talking”.
For Weah, it hasn’t been less cumbersome. It is said that former President Charles Taylor had “suspected” that Weah harbored Presidential ambition in the early 2000s, something often referenced to show how sharply his decision to run for President differed with accepted norms, a public misconception and a circulating bias.
Weah’s decision to run for President in 2005 was sacrilegious to the political elites. Taylor’s own election in 1997 exposed the peculiarity of the Liberian electorate, but Weah’s candidacy was incomprehensible to the political establishment and the lettered part of the population.
He was uneducated, inexperienced and naïve. Worst of all, he was an ex-footballer. Sadly, it would remain 12 years later, despite Weah’s master degree.
Vice President Joseph Boakai in all of his humility could not resist the common sarcasm about his runoff opponent.
“Don’t vote for footballers,” he urged a rally in Gardnerville. “If you vote for footballer, you will be kicked as a football because that is the work of a footballer…We will not get the last kick.” Weah had as well taken to his arsenal, charging that the Vice President was good as being retired and was a “sleeper”.
Weah’s labeling of Boakai’s stereotypical jibe as “racism” did not help him. Nonetheless, it was easy to see that Boakai bought into a rolling caricature of the eventual winner of the 2017 Presidential vote.
The venting of frustration and taunting on social media is commonplace. Some are even predicting doomsday for Liberia in the coming years. Among them a widely circulated opinion by a Zambian named Mainda Simataa.
“Liberia Has Gone To Dogs: Footballer George Weah Will Be The Ultimate American Puppet President” is a rude and fallacious piece, wrapped in bigotry, and full of defeated and obsolete assumptions.
It is not a fair opposition to Weah’s triumph that the writer wants one believe. It simply draws strength from this same, old stereotype against footballers.
In addition to the writer’s extremism and conflict-breeding worldview of politics, he wrongly cited that footballers remain footballers in his country.
However, that a footballer has not been elected in any other country—Zambia included—does not mean a footballer cannot or will not be elected President there.
Furthermore, Weah became Liberia’s 24th President on Monday, January 22, 2018. Currently, President Eager Lungu is Zambia’s sixth President.
Who knows what will happen in the coming decades? Perhaps a cobbler or a carpenter will rise through the trade union as Lula da Silva did in Brazil, and become President of Zambia.
‘Pythagoras in boots’
The most sophisticated cynics of footballers ascribe to the philosophy of Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher in “The Republic” apportioned the role of people in society to their classes.
Plato’s rulers are selected from an upper class—an oligarchy of philosopher-kings—and the rest of the people fill in the roles of artists, soldiers, farmers and so on. Plato’s society is ideally static, and there is no place for people like Weah to make such a political breakthrough.
Though another Greek philosopher Democritus disagreed with Plato, saying that society was ever-changing and pragmatic, it was the work of the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper that dealt a fatal blow.
Exiled from the War World II in the 1940's, Popper argued in “The Open Society and its Enemies” that cornering society into one mode of operation gave rise to tyranny.
Popper saw that there was no place for dissent and liberty in Plato’s ideal republic. In a nutshell, Popper, like Democritus, thought society should be such a way that anyone could aspire to become anything.
Allowing a free space can breed innovation and excellence for the betterment of society. It is a system that can breed leaders such as Ronald Reagan, former American movie star; Pal Schmitt, former professional fencer of Hungary, both of whom were elected Presidents of the their countries.
Apart from any book, football is its own defense. The late Dutch legend Johan Cruyff could not have said it better: “You play football with your mind; your legs are there to help you”. A 2011 study concurred that footballers rely on math and science.
“Football is an art but it’s also a science and every footballer uses geometry, aerodynamics and probability to perform at their peak,” said Dr. Bray of the University of Bath, who conducted the study. The study got an instant backing from Burnley defender at the time, Clark Carlisle. Carlisle considered the smartest footballer in Britain, who received an ‘A’ in math.
“From the forward to the keeper, we rely on scientific and mathematical principles to improve our performance, whether it’s a case of striking the ball cleanly, working out the angle of a slide rule pass or positioning the ball to defend a free-kick,” he said.
This explains how Weah was able to score that memorable goal against Hellas Verona on September 6, 1996, when he ran full pitch, beating six Verona players before slotting the ball pass the goalkeeper. The Heritage newspaper in Monrovia headlined: “A goal fit for the gods”. It was indeed the A.C. Milan man’s mastery of the art and science of football.
To understand this behavioral science, Cruyff provided some of the brightest explanations. Dubbed “Pythagoras in boots”, Cruyff (and Rinus Michels) brought Pythagoras’ philosophy to the pitch.
Just as Pythagoras articulated that sounds produced by different objects at different rates of motion can work together in the same space and time, Cruyff demonstrated that synergy with all eleven players on the pitch with their different but interchanging roles for the sole goal of winning a match.
This further meant there was a defender in every striker as well as a striker in every goalkeeper. That was the birth of “Total Football” and etymology of the phrase “the beautiful game”.
Cruyff, a master of wit (“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is”), was also politically conscious. He chose Barcelona over Real Madrid because of the excesses of the regime of the dictator General Francisco Franco. He even gave his son a Catalan name—Jordi—in further defiance of Franco’s tyranny.
A theory suggests that he did not play in the 1978 World Cup because of the bad human rights profile of the Argentine regime amid the Dirty War that ravaged that country for more than a decade, spreading across its borders.
Weah might share the number 14 with Cruyff, an evidence of the Dutchman’s contrary person; however, he was no pupil of Cruyff. He continued to play for the Lone Star during the autocracy of Charles Taylor.
He was the progeny, to a larger part, of Arigo Sacchi’s philosophy of patience over courage, giving in to attack for an opportunity to counterattack. The “Catennacio” sat at the foundation of the Italian game, pragmatic and malleable, and influenced, of course, by Niccolo Machiavelli.
Weah’s success in Italy could only be attributed to the beauty and brutality of Liberian football of the 1970's and 80's that could be summed up as “Somebody pekin go die”. That was the golden age of Liberian football.
It produced Sakpah “the rock of Gibraltar” Myers but it also produced Oppong—both steel and gold. Weah took along with him that mixture to Europe. With his elastico-esque “sekemu” and “double shovel”, Weah would go down in history alongside Ronaldo and Romario of Brazil for transforming the role of the number nine. His hard upbringing made him cope easily with the rumble of the Italian Serie A and conquered the football world in 1995.
In the 1970's and 1980's, football, though faced stereotype, transcended the scope of sports and delved into the complex Liberian sociopolitical dynamics. Liberia then was practically divided into halves: Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven.
Barrolle was supported by natives and I.E. supported by Congo people (“Congo” had evolved into a combination of the original Congo people, Americo-Liberians and educated natives). But it was his understanding of this sociopolitical dynamics that helped Weah win the elections in December 2017 after two failed bids to be President in 2005 and vice President in 2011, respectively.
Now a senator, he transferred this pragmatism from the pitch to politics. His supporters were not the upper class. They were the lower class of predominantly marketers, slum dwellers and the youth—generally the disillusioned and the disconsolate.
They were the same people who supported him as a player for more than a decade of service to the Lone Star. They were not predominantly the lettered part, but they were the numerical part. They were ready to dash the political class for a new beginning of hope. Their man admitted that he lacked words but insisted he was full of heart, and they agreed.
While warring factions destroyed the country in the 1990's, Weah was the sole consolation of a dying people. He kept Liberia on the map, at least with a good reference as Maradona had done with Argentina in the 1980's.
He was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and disarmed child soldiers, won an Arthur Ashe Award for transcending sports and was named by New African magazine as one of 100 greatest Africans to ever live to sum up all of that.
The mere fact that Weah has been elected President is a victory for sportspeople and, more generally, all those being discriminated against, stereotyped and stigmatized. A massive failure of his government will dent this huge symbol of a liberal society.
A success will exonerate those who gave the former Ballon D’or winner a chance off the pitch. It will give way to the rise of footballer-turned-politicians elsewhere. Retired Nigerian footballer Taribo West was right:
“It is also a motivation for other ex-internationals around the world that they can achieve whatever they set their minds on. Ex-internationals in Africa should wake up and realize that we also have a role to play in the development of our countries and we can achieve success if we venture into politics.”
This article was first published on January 19, 2018 with the title: “Weah atop Footballers’ Global Fight against Stereotype”. This version features some changes and adjustments.
Written by James Harding Giahyue