“Football has been good to me. Everyone has their destiny, but you have to make use of the opportunities. I have spent 15 years at the top of my game. It makes me happy. I love the game. I love scoring goals. But I have always taken it seriously. It is not what the game gives you, it is what you give it.” – George Weah, August 2000.
Last month I found myself in the strange position of pleading with the father of a 13-year-old girl to let her take part in football practices again.
It’s not that she’s the best player in Lions FC Girls – one of the teams we’re running in Tubmanburg, western Liberia – or that we’d even suffer as a result of her absence. It’s that her friends appealed to us on her behalf.
The team’s coach and I put the case to her father, explaining that the team we are running has education as its main focus, that if the children are not behaving well at home or in school then we don’t want them to play. We want to support the authority of parents and teachers and not undermine it. He understood and we came out of the meeting with the agreement that the girl could join the team again and we would jointly monitor her progress.
And things improved; she wants to play football so she does the chores and homework that she is supposed to. She is happy, the parents are happy and the other girls in the team are happy. Peer support and peer motivation are key parts of our vision.
Liberia is a football country. That’s what people tell me. Like my own home in the North East of England, there are other sports, but the only one that really matters is football. And now to underline that, Liberia has a world-famous football star as President: George Oppong Manneh Weah.
George Weah is the classic rags to riches success story: the man from the slum who became President. When you add the even more remarkable stats from his football career, it takes your breath away: one league and three cup medals in France with Monaco and PSG; two Serie A titles with the great AC Milan at the back end of their European glory years; leading Liberia to their first African Cup of Nations qualification while the country was in the middle of a civil war and during which he picked the team, captained the team and covered all the team’s expenses from his own pocket; and most impressively being crowned European, African and World Player of the Year all in the same year (1995).
The man is either supernaturally lucky or extraordinarily determined.
When you’ve got a footballer as President, especially one who overturned the odds like Weah did, it gets people’s hopes up, and rumours begin to circulate: the President wants academies in every one of Liberia’s 15 counties; he will give out footballs, strips and boots at every place he visits; he’s bringing scouts, coaches and players from Europe to sweep up all the talent and sign them to big lucrative contracts.
But there have been a few genuine suggestions that football will be a major theme in the new President’s tenure, irrespective of the rumours.
Within a month of his inauguration, President Weah visited France for the launch of a project to transform Africa through sport, along with Didier Drogba and Kylian Mbappé. FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, said: “The election of George Weah as President of Liberia has given a new impetus to what sport and football in particular can do for education and development in Africa.”
Two weeks later, the Liberian first lady, Mrs Clar Weah – a Jamaican by birth – was made Ambassador and Champion of African Women’s Football at the first ever Women’s Football Symposium organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
She said: “I have seen what George, my husband, has done with soccer to improve his life. And I know that with that tool, collectively, myself, FIFA and CAF would be able to do a lot to ignite football back into Liberia.”
Although the initial sum from the French government of 15 million Euros seems modest, and the Ambassadorial post for Mrs Weah seems largely symbolic, they are indicative of a possible path forward for Liberia to dedicate itself to the use of football for development at a national level. This would be the most significant experiment in using sport for development since the sport and development platform began to solidify at the end of the last century and in particular with the United Nation’s commitment to a Year of Sport and Recreation in 2005.
Clar Weah’s appointment as Ambassador and Champion of African Women’s Football is interesting because as anyone who has set foot in Liberia will know, the game is widely played by boys, but girls in Liberia play the little-known game “kickball” – a version of America’s baseball or the UK’s rounders, where teams kick a football and score runs by running around a diamond and four bases.
Girls and boys are kept apart in sport in Liberia up to now. It’s deliberate and it’s unfair. But there is a change at grassroots level, and the Liberian FA has begun to encourage girls’ football across the country at the expense of kickball. Local FA members have told me that they are being advised that football is the global game now for women and that Liberia must follow suit.
Women’s football is arguably the fastest growing sport in the world, and where there is growth, there is opportunity.
While the decision of the Liberian FA to pursue women’s football could well be motivated by self-interest, and we – and they – must guard against exploitation or abuse, the role that football might play in development in Liberia in general and in women’s development in particular is beginning to be delineated under the direction of the Weahs.
Could Liberia and its development become associated with football in the way the likes of Kenya and Ethiopia have become known for distance running? Not just in order to mine an economic seam, but also in a way that changes the image of the country by providing an environment where a poor country can take on and beat the wealthy countries?
The question that follows in such a scenario is how much would the focus in Liberia be on developing football for its own sake; developing young football players as a kind of natural resource to be exploited by plunderers from rich countries and removed to a different continent; or harnessing the power of sport to bring unity, peace and development through football to the poorest communities?
Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, in economic, educational and most of the other traditional measures. George Weah has inherited a country where the coffers – which are small already – are largely bare.
Lions FC began about two years ago with a group of kids who wanted a ball and some organisation. And we started Lions FC Girls about eight months ago when the girls saw what their brothers and classmates were getting and wanted the same. There was no girls team in the town before then.
For all those children in Lions FC, though, and for anyone living in a country that is generally short of opportunity, we know that whatever we say, most of the kids, and many of the parents are hoping Lions FC will bring them all the trappings of football success that they see in the Champions League and Premier League matches broadcast at the local video clubs.
And when you consider the example of their President, who went from slum to Presidential mansion, and also had the greatest possible success in the entirely unrelated arena of football, then you have to understand the hope is seductive.
The football club we are running in Tubmanburg has a code of conduct for its three teams – under-12 and under-16 boys, and all-age girls – which we also disseminate to any up-and-coming clubs that follow our lead. We stress that the game is for fun, but also to teach them teamwork and discipline, and is always to come second to their education. If your grades suffer, or your parents complain about your behaviour, you will be suspended.
We stress to anyone that asks that we are not there to make great footballers – many of them can already play before they come to us – we are there to make great people, who can contribute to their communities and improve them thanks to the values and talents they have developed through the beautiful game.
Ged Naughton is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in writing about football as a tool for development. Although currently based in Liberia, he is originally from the North East of England. As a life-long supporter of Newcastle United, Ged has learned from an early age to live with disappointment.
Feature Image via Pinterest
George Weah Image 1 via GNN Liberia
George Weah Image 2 via Claudio Villa/ Grazia Neri/Getty Image