George Weah: hopes for revival of Liberian football with legend as president

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When a former Ballon d’Or winner was elected the country’s president, most Liberians would have thought their fortunes on the football pitch would be transformed.

Four and a half years later, stakeholders are still hopeful that George Weah can dribble past the growing problems and help improve the national game.

The 55-year-old was sworn in as president in January 2018, promising to fix the economy, tackle corruption, reform education and healthcare and create tens of thousands of jobs for the poor.

But, for most of his six-year tenure, some of his biggest supporters believe football’s financial woes and lack of development, infrastructure and investment are down to the country’s broken economy. ‘West Africa.

“The government has other priorities like education, the difficult health sector among others,” Liberia Football Association (LFA) technical director Henry Browne told BBC Sport Africa.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, every government entity injected money into football, which is no longer the case today.

“We are still behind in terms of adequate financial support. Expectations are high of the government in other areas, but I think they need to increase their support so that we can start to be competitive.”

Many expected Weah to be as successful as president as he was as a footballer.

The former Liberian striker made a name for himself in Europe with Monaco, Paris St-Germain and AC Milan before brief spells at Manchester City and Chelsea.

On the eve of his inauguration, Musa Bility, then LFA boss, predicted a bright future for football. After all, Weah has promised to make “transforming the lives of all Liberians” the “singular mission” of his presidency.

Bility also served on the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football, but was handed a 10-year ban by Fifa in July 2019 for breaching its code of ethics.

The challenges of football

Weah and Liberia came close to qualifying for the 2002 World Cup but finished one point behind group winners Nigeria

Liberia was plagued by civil war in the 1990s, but the national team had some of its best days, with Weah leading them to the Africa Cup of Nations finals in 1996 and 2002.

While still a player, he served as the national team’s technical director between 2000 and 2002 and launched an unsuccessful bid to lead the LFA after retiring in 2004, before turning to politics a year later.

It has now been two decades since the Lone Stars took part in a major tournament and the country’s national stadium, the Samuel Kanyon Doe (SKD) Sports Complex, was one of many deemed unsuitable for staging international matches by the Caf and the Fifa last August.

Liberia have a better chance than ever of qualifying for the next Nations Cup final in Ivory Coast in 2024, with their qualifying group reduced to three teams after Zimbabwe were eliminated.

But, after a first defeat against Morocco, the LFA, in financial difficulties, are in search of a new coach after having decided not to extend the contract of Peter Butler.

Former Lyon and PSG player James Debbah – also Weah’s cousin – has shared the international stage with the president for more than two decades but sees politics as very different from football.

“We were successful when he was on the pitch,” said 52-year-old Debbah.

“It’s a lot more different now to try to reconcile everyone, to get former professional players to work in the Ministry of Youth and Sports and to try to get the country back on track.”

When asked if Weah should be bothered by Liberia’s inability to qualify for major tournaments, Debbah added: “I don’t think it’s bothersome. He has contributed a lot to football in this country and continues to do.

“You can’t blame him for what’s happening on the pitch. He put the resources at our disposal to qualify.”

Lone Stars assistant coach Thomas Kojo, director of sports at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, also played with Weah for Liberia.

“I can’t say the president should take [all the] money from government coffers to allocate to football, but there are many ways to fund national team programs with money,” Kojo said.

“There are different concession agreements where we can raise funds because the president cannot use all the funds to build football infrastructure. There are companies in Liberia that can support the national team in addition to the government.”

FIFA money

Liberia fans starved of success as Lone Stars qualify for Africa Cup of Nations only twice

Like other Fifa member associations, Liberia has benefited from a development program launched in May 2016 by world football‘s governing body.

The LFA has channeled the $1.4m (£1.16m) it received from Fifa to develop its headquarters, which is nearing completion, and four mini-stadiums in counties from Montserrado and Grand Bassa.

Former LFA board member Wilmot F. Smith Jr said Weah had been “fully supportive” of the drive to improve football despite domestic challenges.

“The government has provided grants to clubs that qualify for the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup,” Smith said.

“In an effort to improve the national team, she hired Peter Butler and supported his every request.

“There are competing priorities for scarce resources, but the government has honored requests from the LFA to fund national teams at all levels. President Weah is doing everything to improve football.

“All we can do is wait and see a new day for Liberian football under George Weah.”

Stadium issues

Liberia are set to replace Peter Butler (left) as coach, with the next 2023 Nations Cup qualifiers not scheduled until March next year.

The SKD underwent another round of refurbishments, estimated at $2m (£1.65m), which included the laying of artificial turf and the installation of bucket seats.

CAF cleared SKD to hold their first game since October 2019, with Liberia losing 3-0 to Senegal in an African Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifier on July 24.

“Weah knows what it takes to develop football,” presidential press secretary Isaac Solo Kelgbeh told BBC Sport Africa.

“Football will improve and develop under Weah when we work together because he is not the chairman of the FA. Weah is ready to work with the football authorities. We have to be patient to get results.”

Weah visited the seat of the presidency for his performances on the pitch and journalist Naomi Tappia believes he will be judged harshly if football has not developed by the time he leaves office.

“I think football has to improve by looking at the president we have. Football has made him an international icon,” Tappia explained.

“It’s a sport that made him reach where he is in life now.”

However, as Liberians prepare for a presidential election in October next year, Weah’s time to make an impact on the game could be running out.

Weah played with some of the greatest footballers of all time at AC Milan, including Roberto Baggio

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