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Political Football : As His Soccer Stature Grows Around the World, Weah Hasn't Forgotten About Trouble at Home in Liberia

July 14, 1996|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They torched George Weah's seaside home the other day, burning it to the ground. Before that, they flogged several of his relatives, raped two of his teenage cousins, ransacked his house and commandeered two of his 15 cars.

All because of something he had been quoted as saying in the New York Times.

No matter how famous an athlete you might be, when you cross the thugs who masquerade as warlords in the impoverished and blighted land that is Liberia, even national hero status is not enough to protect you or your family.

And in Liberia, George Oppong Weah is certainly a national hero. The first player in the history of soccer to simultaneously be named African, European and FIFA world player of the year, he is held in awe not only in Africa but in much of the world. A demigod, some have called him.

"We must give thanks first to God and then to George Weah," Liberia's national team coach, Wilfred "Tijani" Lardner, said when the country managed, against all odds, to qualify for the African Nations Cup in South Africa in January.

But it is Weah's misfortune to call Monrovia, Liberia, home, even though he also maintains residences in Italy, where last season he helped AC Milan win the national championship, and here in New York, where he owns a restaurant. Today, he will play for a FIFA world all-star team against world champion Brazil across the river at Giants Stadium.

As his country's most famous son, Weah is widely quoted, and not only on sport. But Liberia, torn by civil war, is no place these days to be heard making the sort of political remarks that Weah voiced a couple of months ago. What he told the New York Times was that he supported calls for his country to become a United Nations trusteeship.

That stance infuriated some of those fighting for control of Liberia, and, three days after the article was published, guerrillas, purportedly from the National Patriotic Front, invaded Weah's $100,000 home--the one with the full-sized basketball court out back--looted it, doused it with gasoline and set it afire.

"I received the news from one of my cousins who was raped," Weah, 29, told Reuters news service from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where he was trying to establish a temporary refuge for his family, as well as setting up a base in exile for the Liberian national team so that it could play its World Cup '98 qualifying games in safety. "She called me up and wanted to know what I said in the New York Times."

What Weah had told the newspaper in an interview published May 20 was, "The United Nations should come in and take over Liberia, not temporarily, but for life. To make Liberians believe in democracy, to make us believe in human rights."

It would be easy for Weah to turn his back on his country. After all, he is financially secure and as at home in New York as in Paris or Milan. He and his American wife, Clar, have three children, the oldest a Jamaican-born daughter they adopted. But even though he holds joint Liberian-French citizenship, he can't ignore the plight of his native land.

"I'm beginning to feel a sense of social responsibility that I didn't feel a couple of years ago," Weah told FIFA magazine in February. "When I look around in Liberia, I see young boys playing football all over the place. It is time Liberia established itself as a footballing nation."

Weah is unique in having made the improbable climb from barefoot boyhood soccer on the dusty streets of Monrovia to international stardom. The journey was a long and circuitous one. A synopsis:

Born on Oct. 1, 1966, Weah passed through a succession of local teams in Liberia, none of which would ever have been heard of were it not for his subsequent fame. It was while playing as a striker for the wonderfully named Invincible Eleven, Liberia's most popular team, that Weah began attracting wider attention.

He was signed by the powerful Cameroon club Tonnerre of Yaounde, helping it win a national title in 1988. His play caught the eye of Frenchman Claude le Roy, then Cameroon's national team coach. Le Roy passed Weah's name along to AS Monaco of the French first division, and Monaco's coach, Arsene Wenger, signed Weah, then turned the promising forward into a polished diamond.

"He made me the footballer I am today," Weah told FIFA magazine. "He taught me to persevere, to live a decent life and to play fair. He initiated me into European ways, but he understood my African origins and respected them. He let me play my game, my way."

Weah scored 57 goals in four seasons with Monaco, powering the club to its French Cup victory in 1991 and to the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup the following season. That was enough to prompt Paris Saint Germain to pay Monaco $4.5 million for his services. At the time, it was a record transfer fee for an African player, but Weah's upward spiral was not about to end in the French capital.

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