Published By Daily Trust of Nigeria – Oct 8 2016
Daily Trust: You ran unsuccessfully for president of Liberia in 2005 against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and again for vice president on Winston Tubman’s ticket. Can you share your experience?
George Weah: It’s a truly great thing to be part of Liberian politics. You know I played a major role in the peace-building over the years. I was called on board by the people and they gave me their mandate, and I created and funded a party called Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), which is today the people’s party, the most popular one in my country. I went to the polls in 2005, and won the first round overwhelmingly but something changed and we had to go for a second round. When we did, the same thing happened.
But for the sake of peace and stability in our country – coming from many years of civil war – we held discussions with regional leaders and interest groups and we eventually decided to accept the results. We listened to the counsel of respectable African leaders, who I respect a lot, like Nigeria’s then-president Olusegun Obasanjo, Ghana’s then-president John Kufuor and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and others, who sat with me and told me that ‘Look, in the interest of peace and stability in your country, let’s make some provisions for the country to move on’. I’m a peaceful man, and my vision is to see Liberia grow. So I listened, kept hope alive, and all the while I continued to work.
In 2011, I was privileged to be on the ticket of Winston Tubman, as his Vice. We went to elections, and a similar thing happened. Again, we let it slide and continued to hope. I declared my bid for the presidency in April 28, and I would like to tell those who told me to concede for the sake of peace, that for the sake of peace and stability that we’re hoping that there will be free and fair elections.
We’re hoping that this time everything will be OK, and that interest groups will guide the election, and see it through.
DT: After your retirement, you joined politics, unlike some of your colleagues who opted for careers in coaching or football management. What informed your decision?
Weah: I grew up in a politician’s house, that’s my father. He was active in the movement that got [Ellen] Sirleaf Johnson out of jail, the Movement For Justice in Africa (MOJA) whose school of thought I also subscribe to. For my entire life so far, and my career, I’ve been following Liberian politics and I’ve been involved, even on the international scene. I’ve been actively advocating against the war that ravaged my country. I spoke out, so sanity would return to Liberia. If you recall, I gave an interview to Forbes magazine then, in which I said for peace to return, the United Nations needed to come into the country. They came in, and I was involved in the disarmament process as well.
When I saw the child soldiers, and the lives they led, I decided to help them. I helped get them disarmed, and many of them even went to school, and are today doctors, lawyers and so on. I played a major role. And I was called on board, as I said earlier, by the people and they gave me their mandate. Even after all that has happened over the years at the polls, I still have that mandate.
After achieving all that I have in my soccer career, I decided not to go the coaching route, because I wanted to help my country in a different way. I also went back to school, up to Masters’ level and I’m currently a serving Senator.
When I was joining politics, some people thought I was a joke. But here we are today, and I have the people’s mandate.
DT: You ran for the presidency twice. What makes you feel you will succeed this time?
Weah: We have grown in politics. In 2005, I was very young and inexperienced. But for twelve years now, I’ve been very active. I’m very much into government now. For our rebirth, we’ve been in tune with the intricacies of our nation. We also kept an eye on what the current government is doing, and we speak out when there’s a need. When we need to support them, say to enact laws and such, we do so too in the interest of the people.
Everyone in the CDC has grown, we have matured. When we speak, we don’t incite. We speak words of wisdom. So much so that when I ran for the Senate, even key figures of the opposition came to us, to join us.
We’ve also fine-tuned all of the intricacies, like early planning, making sure the ballot papers are monitored and so on. We also collaborated with other parties. Like I said, we have grown. I believe I’m a good leader, with skills and the heart to make a positive difference.
DT: You were elected to the Liberian Senate in 2014. How have you been coping with life as a public figure and politician rolled in one?
Weah: I mix both, because I was a public figure and now I’m a politician. So the responsibilities are the same, just in slightly different ways.
DT: You converted from Christianity to Islam, changing your name to Ousmane, before reverting to Christianity. You’ve also been quoted as saying Muslims and Christians are “one people”. Can you explain the philosophy behind your actions?
Weah: When I said Muslims and Christians are one people, I meant we’re all from the same God, and nothing can change that. When people see themselves as being different from others, then most likely there is misinterpretation of religion somehow. We worship differently, but we’re all human beings and we all have parts to play, Muslim or Christian. And that’s why I don’t discriminate in any way. I respect everyone.
Let’s go back a little. I had a rough childhood, and growing up things were so difficult that I found it difficult to pay my school fees. I barely made it past primary school, and secondary school was looking like an impossibility. I had a Muslim friend then, who gave me the opportunity to join Muslim Congress, an English and Arabic School. I attended for a year, and even though I grew up in a Christian home, I fell in love with the Islamic way of life.
I told my grandmother, with whom I lived, that I’m attending the English and Arabic School, to learn their discipline, to learn how to pray five times a day. She said, ‘well, George, God is God and how you serve him doesn’t matter’. So I went, and was so fascinated by it all, that in 1989 I converted to Islam. I chose the name Ousmane for its similarity to one of my names, Manneh. For almost 10 years, I was a Muslim and I learned the teachings, fasting and all of it. After my grandmother died, I reverted to Christianity.
I believe we are all one people, serving the same God. But typical of some politicians, that is often used against me. But I’m always going to be proud I’ve learned the teachings of Islam, and I’m proud that I’m a Christian. I like to think I have the best of both worlds.
DT: You have won several trophies and laurels during your professional football career and represented Liberia in two African Nations Cup outings, yet you have never played in a World Cup final. How do you feel about this?
Weah: Maybe it simply wasn’t meant to be. We missed the World Cup finals three times, in Germany, Italy and the United States. Then for the 2002 African Nations Cup in Port Harcourt, if you remember our goalkeeper got a red card and the Nigerian team benefited from that (laughter). But like I said, maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Win some, lose some.
But the real win, for me, is all the love. From all around the world, from fellow players, fans and others, who have always shown me love and support and I can’t thank them enough for that. It’s pretty humbling, really.
DT: Three of your children, George Weah Jr, Tita and Timothy are following your football footsteps. Did you influence their career choice?
Weah: Well, they watch the game, and we play together. They developed keen interest and decided to play, most especially the girl, Tita. She did what she could, but eventually left it and went back to school. George Jr., had to pause because of a knee injury. Timothy is doing very well in Paris St. Germain’s Honour 19, and just the other day he scored three goals in the Champions League, glory be to God. He’s carrying the legacy of the family, as my father, uncle and cousins all played football. I just happen to be the one who kept the name alive. So I’d like to use this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me on my journey, most especially Arsene Wenger and my other coaches.
I’m very involved in the lives of my children, even if I let them choose their paths. They are much-admired because of their upbringing. They’re respectable, they have good hearts and they love to help. They’re like me in so many ways. They also learn from their mother, Clar Weah, who’s also a good woman. I’ve been married for 23 years, and I think God blessed me with a supportive family.
DT: Who is your favourite Nigerian player of all time?
Weah: Answering that would make some of my friends and brothers upset with me (laughter). I have many Nigerian friends who I love very much, so I cannot pick one.
DT: During your debut game at Milan, the commentator said ‘It took George Weah just five minutes to announce his arrival’. How did it feel scoring your first goal there within mere moments?
Weah: I was excited. It was my son’s birthday, I remember, August 27th, and it was my first game there. Every player who goes to the field for his first game in a new environment, tries hard to do his best. I was determined not just to score, but to play a wonderful game that day. It was a good beginning, and gave me confidence.
DT: Who is your idol, or role model outside of football?
Weah: One person: Nelson Mandela. He was a very simple man, a great leader who believes in peace and unity. When I met him, I stood in a corridor and he dragged me out and made me feel like we were on the same level, even if we aren’t. He’s Mandela, you know? the definition of a good man. I miss him terribly, and I pray for his soul to rest in peace.
DT: How did it feel when soccer legend Pelé described you as one of the world’s greatest living players?
Weah: It was an honour, coming from the king, Pelé himself. I received it with grace. For the man we all admired as kids growing, to say that, meant a lot. And I was even privileged to meet him in Monte Carlo, when we worked on a committee together. I’ve always wanted to meet him.
In my life, I’d always wanted to meet only three people. Pelé was the first, then Nelson Mandela. The third is former Nigerian president Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. They are all great men who as young men we all followed.
In Babangida’s case, even the mention of his name made us excited in Liberia. We would even copy how he dressed. We all loved him, and we even named a highway after him. He’s a good man who helped our country so much, and we can never forget what he, and other Nigerians, did for us. But I’m yet to meet him in person and would love to someday.
DT: How would you describe the state of African football today, compared to your heydays?
Weah: We must applaud African football, even if there are problems like little or no sponsorship. The performance of our players must be hailed, they make me very proud. Progress may be slow, but it is sure. Look at how long it took us to get the Ballon D’Or. We’ll still get it again someday.
DT: As the only African to be awarded the Ballon D’Or, how did clinching it feel?
Weah: I felt proud as a Liberian, and proud as an African. I mean, mine is a classic grass-to-grace story, from the humblest of backgrounds to the pinnacle of a career in professional football. So you can imagine my joy. And it’s not because of myself, no. I felt proud for putting Africa on the map. The respect I get because of that is humbling.
DT: Do you miss playing football?
Weah: I still play regularly, at weekends, just to keep fit. I do analysis for TV programmes too. I can’t ever stop playing. I love it too much.
DT: You share the same birthday with Nigeria, October 1st, and you celebrated this year’s here. How does that feel?
Weah: This is actually the second time I’ve spent my birthday here in Nigeria. And even when I’m not here, I celebrate it with Nigerians. When I was in Milan, Taribo [West] would drag me to the Nigerian society and we’d all celebrate. Those were great days, indeed. Nigeria is a great nation, and it’s an honour to share her birthday.
DT: You just turned 50. Do you have plans to write your memoirs?
Weah: There are many discussions about that going on, and I’m waiting for the final details. All I can promise readers is the unvarnished truth.
DT: What’s your favourite way to relax?
Weah: Just relaxing, and having good conversation with family and friends. I used to be more outgoing, but that’s reduced now. I did go out some days back, for my birthday. It reminded me of when I was a youngster. Now I’m in the 50s Club (laughter) and it really felt great when my friends took me out, and I thank them.