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Last Updated: Monday, 4 April 2005, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Weah's pitch for Liberian votes
By James Copnall
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

George Weah
Weah has long been linked with good causes in Liberia
It is not often that the seemingly estranged worlds of sport and politics cross orbits - but Liberian football legend George Weah is one such example.

The 1995 World and African footballer of the year has announced his intention to run for president of his country in elections, scheduled for 11 October.

Weah was an undisputed success on the pitch: his striking brilliance for club sides in Liberia, Cameroon, France, Italy and England was a matter of huge pride for Africans in general, and Liberians in particular.

Yet Weah's impact on his country was not just sporting. Mister George, as he is known in France, is also a hero to many Liberians for his off the field work, being named a Unicef ambassador for his efforts to improve the lives of children throughout the continent.

"It is almost impossible to explain how much George has done for Liberia," the country's sports minister, Wheatonia Dixon-Barnes, told BBC World Service's Focus On Africa magazine.

"In Liberia, football is everything. It is crazy, but football is a unifier. Even during the heat of the war, the warring factions put down their arms to come to football games."

Popular amongst young

Weah was not just the leader of Liberia's national team - he personally bankrolled the Lone Star on a number of occasions.

Above all, Weah is perceived as an honest and good man. Liberia has seen few such wholesome characters among its political leaders in the last two decades.

For that alone, the footballer turned politician has a good chance of winning the most important job in his homeland.

George Weah supporters in Monrovia
Weah has particularly strong support amongst Liberia's youth
Weah is especially popular among the young, who make up a disproportionately large part of the electorate.

And as only half of Liberians can read or write, the fact that Weah is less educated than the average head of state is likely to be a smaller issue than it might be elsewhere.

"Look at how all the intellectuals wrecked our country," one Monrovia resident told me. "How could George do any worse?"

Not many footballers have taken the big step from kicking a ball to shaping the destiny of a nation.

There are small-scale regional examples: Ibrahima Fanny, an Ivory Coast international goalkeeper in the 1970s, is now mayor of the country's second-biggest town Bouake.

And elsewhere in Africa it is easy to find former footballers who have become ministers of sport - a current example is Senegal's Youssoupha Ndiaye, an international in the 1960s who became a judge before entering the Senegalese government in November 2002.

But footballers have rarely morphed into politicians, perhaps because few of its professional practitioners continue with education beyond a fairly limited level.

Athletics, cricket and tennis have been have produced some notable political figures - Britain's Sebastian Coe, one of the greatest runners of all time, had a five-year spell as a Conservative Party MP, and also ran the office of the party leader, William Hague - prior to a spectacular election defeat in 2001.

Promoted to Lord Coe, the former Olympic champion is now the head of London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, one of the greatest batsman-bowlers in the history of the game, is another who decided to move into the political arena.

Khan had a similar background to many politicians - his family is rich, and he was educated at the prestigious Oxford University in England. He is well-loved in his country for his sporting prowess but also for the free modern cancer hospital he built, following the death of his mother from the disease.

However, Khan has not quite made the grade as a politician. He founded the Tehrik-e Insaf (Movement for Justice), which campaigns against corruption and for development - but the party has won few parliamentary seats.

Boxing presidents

Meanwhile tennis saw 1973 world number one Ilie Nastase run for mayor of Romania's capital city Bucharest in 1996, while Czech-American legend Martina Navratilova has also indicated an interest in politics, saying she may well run for office.

Yet what Coe, Khan, Nastase and Navratilova have in common is that they have not yet achieved all they set out to in politics.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan is yet to have a significant impact in Pakistani politics
But the sport which has had the closest brush with African politics is undoubtedly boxing: two former African heads of state have been notable boxers.

Idi Amin Dada was a fearsome pugilist, and the light heavyweight champion of Uganda from 1951 to 1960 before becoming the self-proclaimed "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."

The second is Nelson Mandela - a keen boxer throughout his youth and early adulthood.

The young Mandela mixed sparring in the gyms of Soweto with a burgeoning political activity that ultimately led to his imprisonment on Robben Island.

According to him, boxing was more than just recreation: "Boxing is egalitarian," he once said.

"In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.

"I never did any real fighting after I entered politics."

Weah may well win Liberia's Presidential elections in October.

But very few people have been as successful in politics as they were in the sports arena. As ever, Nelson Mandela is an exception.


SEE ALSO
Hero's welcome for Liberia star
25 Nov 04 |  Africa



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