George Weah will this week continue his latest bid to win the presidency of Liberia as the country goes to the polls, hoping his status as a legend of the African game will make it third time lucky in his political career.
The former World Footballer of the Year is easily the most famous personality from the struggling west African country, and is trying for a second time to attain the highest office in his land, having been beaten in 2005 when he came second in the presidential election with just over 40 percent of the vote.
In 2011 he also ran for the vice-president role on the losing ticket but now, at the age of 51, is strongly placed to emerge as the successor to Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.
He is certainly not the first sportsman to have made the transition to politician — Pelé and Zico have both served as Brazilian sports ministers — but he is the first with such worldwide household recognition to want to be president of his country.
In the Faroe Islands, Kaj Leo Johannesen served as prime minister after his career as an international goalkeeper had ended. He won four caps and played in the qualifiers for both the European Championships in 2002 and the 1994 World Cup but, of course, has nothing of the legacy of Weah.
For the past decade the 1995 Ballon d’Or winner — the only African to have won the prestigious individual award — has been actively involved in Liberian politics, and for the last three years carried the title of senator after a one-sided win in lower house elections. He represents Montserrado County, where the country’s two largest football stadiums are situated.
Liberia — the oldest African republic — is among the world’s poorest countries, beset over decades by the ravages of corruption, an insurgency, and repressive rule.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2005 — the first democratically-elected woman head of state in Africa’s history — in a rare free and fair vote (she beat Weah by 59.4 percent of the vote to 40.6 percent), there was hope for a turnabout, but the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014 led to more socio-economic disruption.
Liberia was established by freed slaves from the USA and the Caribbean in 1847, and has long had a strong American influence. The Dollar has always been the country’s currency and many Liberians gravitate towards the US. Weah has had a residence in New York for some time, married an American, and his son Timothy, now on the books at Paris St Germain, is an Under-17 international for the US.
His footballing achievements made Weah a national icon and election rallies he has hosted over the last weeks have given a strong indication that he will achieve his goal. But there are also a lot of Liberians who do not take him seriously.
“Senator Weah has been in office since 2014 and hasn’t proposed or sponsored any legislation,” says one of his strongest opponents, Alex Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive who recently returned to the country. “As a presidential candidate in 2005 and vice-presidential candidate in 2011, Mr Weah hasn’t so much as set up a football academy in Liberia.”
A non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Research and Democratic Empowerment, says he is guilty of chronic absenteeism in the legislature.
But Weah, who will be representing his Congress for Democratic Change Party (CDC), defended his record in an interview with French radio station RFI.
“Everything I do, everything I touch is successful,” says Weah. “I co-sponsor bills and I represent my people well,” adding that he helped promote legislation focused on the youth. “We’re in a political time so people are telling lies against me. People against my ideology will say what they want to say.”
Weah’s campaign has little of the trappings of what would be expected in the West: No website, no slogans, no manifesto to peruse his policies. He is banking on his fame and popularity, traveling extensively and drawing massive crowds. He has talked about reconciliation after the decades of civil strife, pointing to his time as a former UN peace ambassador working on disarming child soldiers.
“I believe Liberians should be safe and united. We came from an era of misunderstanding — not understanding cultural diversity … without solidarity and reconciliation and peace we cannot grow, we cannot advance,” he adds.
In the urban areas there is a skepticism that Weah might not have the experience to properly lead the country, but there is no doubting his popular appeal in the countryside.
“When I become president I will make sure we do everything to invest in agriculture to create employment for our people and for our people to be able to sustain themselves. Through agriculture we can create jobs for the young people,” he says.
“If you go around Liberia and ask about Senator Weah, the people, the locals will tell you that ‘he’s a good man, he is doing what we are expecting him to do’. I’m a winnable candidate — I’m the choice of the people,” he continues.
Certainly, Weah is remembered from the time he paid out of his own pocket to fund the Liberian team in the World Cup qualifiers when the football association and government had no money to do so. He flew teammates from clubs across the world to the various venues for the qualifiers.
“When we played those matches it was a time when the war stopped and people were united,” he remembers.
At the time he was seen above the fray of civil conflict, a unifying force who, through his exploits on the pitch in France, Italy, and England, gave Liberians a rare reason to be proud and joyful.
When the BBC asked last month why he wanted to be in politics, why he wanted to be president of Liberia, and whether he was suitable for the job, Weah answered: “Politics is a tough business, we all know. You can ask why does a lawyer want to be president, why does a businessman want to be president?
“I feel I have been called to service, for the love of my country and for the love of my people. I want to become president of what I have already done to change my people’s lives and by being president I feel can do more.
“I have come from slums, roaming around the streets of Monrovia [Liberia’s capital], but today I’m history. I scored one of the best goals ever in the history of football. I made a mark.”
Weah was a three-time winner of the African Footballer of the Year prize, and was crowned World Footballer of the Year in 1995, comfortably beating German legend Jürgen Klinsmann into second place.
He had excelled at French clubs Monaco and Paris St Germain, before joining AC Milan ahead of the 1995/96 season, where he won two Serie A titles. He later had spells with Chelsea and Manchester City in the English Premier League, before a season with Marseille in 2000/01. He scored 193 goals in 478 appearances during his time in Europe.
But leading Liberia to peace and prosperity will be an achievement surpassing all others.