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Why Football Matters in Liberia

With a 4-0 win over Cape Verde yesterday, Ghana clinched its first-ever berth in the World Cup finals, slated for next year in Germany. Ghana’s one of four sub-Saharan African nations going to the World Cup finals for the first time, alongside Togo, Angola and Cote d’Ivoire, who all earned the right to their first finals berths. North of the Sahara, Tunisia qualified as the fifth African team, heading to the finals their third consecutive time.

This marks a major shift in African football. While African footballers are often some of the most talented and exciting players on top European sides, most African nations have had a difficult time putting together a competitive national side. In past years, Nigeria and Cameroon
have dominated competition on the continent – with their failures to qualify and the rise of these new football powers, we may be seeing a changing of the guard, and possibly the chance for more African sides to compete at the highest levels. (I’m especially excited Ghana’s Black Stars, who played very well in qualifiers, and who have historically seen a great deal of success at the Africa Cup and the under-17 levels… perhaps this is the year we succeed on a global stage…)

Football in Africa isn’t just about national pride – it can also be about politics. Liberia will elect a new president on Tuesday, and there’s a very good chance that they’ll elect footballer George Weah as their new leader. While Weah has had an astounding football career – time with AC Milan, Chelsea and Man City, the FIFA World Player of the year in 1995 – it’s unclear whether his time as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador has qualified him to tackle Liberia’s substantial problems, which include widespread poverty, 85% unemployment and thousands of former child soldiers.

Raised in a Monrovia slum, dropping out of high school to play football in Europe, Weah’s background couldn’t be much further from that of his most serious rival, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Finance minister of Liberia’s government in the 1970s, Sirleaf is a Harvard-educated economist and diplomat with extensive experience at the World Bank. The rivalry between Sirleaf and Weah (independent of the other 20 candidates) encapsulates Liberia’s central historical conflict, between Liberians descended from freed American slaves and Liberians who are members of the ethnic groups who lived in Liberia when the former Americans showed up. Until 1980, Americo-Liberians had dominated Liberian politics; when Samuel Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, took power in 1980, Americo-Liberians fell out of power. Weah is a member of the Krahn, like Doe, while Sirleaf is an Americo-Liberian.

A number of Liberians – including some former footballers who played with Weah – have suggested that Weah’s unqualified to lead his nation, no matter how talented he might be on the pitch. The 100,000 who marched in Monrovia today seem to feel otherwise – one carried a placard which read “George Weah is the Messiah”. A recentGeorge Weah campaign ad doesn’t shy from messianic imagery: “There was a light in Liberia that shined before and through the darkness. A game, that offered a way to forget the war. And for one man, a way to rise above it altogether.”)

Liberia might need a messiah if it’s going to hold together. It’s worth remembering that as recently as the summer of 2003, the US government considered sending Marines into Monrovia to force President Charles Taylor – under attack from rebel groups – out of power. Instead, 15,000 UN peacekeepers – primarily from Ghana and Nigeria – have occupied the country in the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping mission… and one of its most successful.

While it’s miraculous that the country is now peaceful enough to hold an election, there’s a ticking time bomb for anyone who ends up leading Liberia – thousands of former soldiers. They’re young, unemployed, and more than a few of them have guns. Abe McLaughlin reports that agents in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are paying $200 – $400 “recruitment fees” to young fighters to go on “missions”. These unemployed youths may well be contributing to the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, and would certainly be able to destabilize Liberia if someone with sufficient money wanted to plunge the country into war again.

Which is why it might be a very good thing if Weah were to win Tuesday’s elections. It’s understandably easier for young Liberians to get excited about the world’s most famous Liberian rather than about a seasoned career politician. And having Liberia’s youth excited about their nation and its government may well be the key to the nation’s future… and peace in the region.

2 thoughts on “Why Football Matters in Liberia”

  1. It might be. If so, it’s an uneasy one, as I question whether Weah’s experience prepares him for the Presidency. But I do think that a unifying figure with a positive vision could do wonders for Liberia, and I suspect Weah’s the person in that country most likely to be a unifying figure…

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