Weah is a man of many parts

 

CAN you name the following footballer? Now at the height of his career, he also owns his owns professional team. A naturalised Frenchman, he also finances his national team, entirely out of his own pocket. He earns an estimated $1 million per year, likes to wear a baseball cap and listen to Bob Marley reggae on his walkman. When he returns on holiday to his native land, he is surrounded by 15 armed bodyguards at his 16 room luxury, beachside villa.

Liberian George Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah (29) is our man and, in case you haven't already worked it out Weah is a footballer with a difference. The man who last week won France Football's prestigious "1995 European Player of the Year" award, considers himself nothing less than a crusader on behalf of both his native continent Africa and his native land Liberia.

With the exception in 1965 of the great Eusebio, who was born in Mozambique, Weah is the first African to win the European Footballer of the Year trophy. The point is not lost on the Liberian who is quick to share the award with, African predecessors.

"I'm very proud because Liberia is anything but a world soccer power. But I've only harvested what was sown by African players before me, men like the Moroccan Larbi Ben Barek, the Ghanaian Abedi Pele, Cameroon's Roger Milla, not to mention the achievements of the Cameroon and Nigerian sides at the last two World Cups," said Weah.

It has been suggested that Weah is hardly a worthy winner of the title since he won little of note in 1995 having picked up only the French Cup (won with Paris St Germain before his midsummer move to AC Milan, hardly a trophy of earth-shattering importance.

There are those who argue that the achievements of the brilliant Ajax Amsterdam side should have been rewarded, not only because the Dutch champions won the European Champions Cup but also because they represent (as Ireland knows only too painfully well) one of the most talented and exciting schools in contemporary European soccer. Weah takes the point but has his answer ready. "I was the leading Champions League goalscorer. The Player of the Year title rewards individual brilliance, while trophies are won by team effort. Ajax dominated 1995 thanks to its collective game, not thanks to the individual brilliance of any particular player," he said.

No one can ever accuse Weah of having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Hiss parents separated when he was just three months old and he was subsequently brought up along with 12 brothers and sisters by his grandmother Emma in Gibalta, Monrovia's dockland. The family lived in a tiny, tin-roofed tenement that Weah recalls as "dark and humid."

Soccer was a way out of poverty, a means to staying off the streets where, by his own admission, the young truant Weah used to gamble at cards, smoke "hash" and get into fights rather than go to school.

His soccer career began in 1980 as a 14-year-old with the aptly named Liberian side Young Survivors, who took one look at his imposing physique and told him to go play in goal.

By 1988, after playing in Liberia and Cameroon, and long after it had been well and truly discovered that Weah's talents were best maximised in front of, rather than in goal, he had made the European big time, being signed for the modest fee of $130,000 by Monaco.

Seven years later, Milan had to pay more than 60 times that amount when forking out $8.5 million for him in a transfer move from Paris St Germain. Despite his current success and wealth, Weah has not forgotten his background.

He explained: "It's very hard for an African to make it in Europe. Just think of the difficulty we have just getting an entrance visa, not to mention the problems of adapting to a completely strange climate and culture.

"Look what happens when you get to be successful. People see a white man driving a Mercedes and they think he's some sort of successful businessman. When they see a black man driving a Mercedes, they think he's a drugs trafficker."

Although part of his family, live in New York, where he is the owner of two apartments and a restaurant, Weah continues to take an active interest in Liberian affairs, founding and owning his own club there, "as a way of giving kids the chances that I had had myself, inspiring them to believe in the future and improve their lives through sport."

Weah's earnings finance the entire Junior Professionals operation right down to the purchase of a Belgian bus for away fixtures and including a generous salary of $750 dollars a month in a country where the average monthly salary is $38 dollars.

Likewise, given the lack of funds in a country that has been torn by bloody civil war for much of the last six years, Weah also finances the Liberian national team itself.