MONROVIA, LIBERIA — Patrick Koffar taps a tin teapot to quiet the street-corner crowd. The Monrovia soccer club, next to Mama Sheriff's potato leaf restaurant downtown, is being called to order.
"The topic of the day is," says Mr. Koffar, pausing for effect, "what were the shortfalls that led Nigeria to lose against Argentina [in last Sunday's World Cup match]?"
A young man in a suit, notes in hand, stands to present his argument. Another man, a hawker with half a dozen cans of peas stuffed into his pockets, takes out a pen and jots down questions, readying for the rebuttal. Several members have photocopied team lineup sheets and these are passed around and studied.
Welcome to the streets of Monrovia, where the growing ranks of the unemployed while away their days at various "clubs," curbside forums where locals sip bitter "hatar" tea and discuss the weighty issues of the day.
Each club is dedicated to a specific area of interest, and woe to him who tries to change the subject. The soccer club is clearly the most popular.
In Liberia the game of soccer or football as it is called here holds an almost holy position. And it is, arguably, because of one man George Weah.
But in a country in the midst of civil war, with a state of emergency in place, and summary arrests becoming a daily occurrence, no one is sure what is safe anymore. Even talking about the national soccer hero could get you in trouble.
A poor local boy from Grand Kru county, Mr. Weah made his way out of the slums and into the big league, playing for Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, and Chelsea. He won European, African, and FIFA player of the year awards. In 1998 he was named African player of the century.
"He made people here extremely proud," says Adolphus Twea, president of Eleven Trouble Makers, one of the city's many youth soccer teams. "The world thought we were nothing but crazy rebels killing one another.... Weah changed that, and put us on the map for something besides war. Now every child dreams of being like him."
The seasoned veteran Weah, who lives in New York, for a time used his own money to support the Liberian national team, buying everything from jerseys to plane tickets, and using proceeds from exhibition games overseas to start charities at home.
He also coached and played with the national team, and almost led them to the World Cup this year. By all accounts, he became the biggest hero in town. A statue of him went up on Broad Street in 1997, and everyone began calling him "King George." Which is when the problems began.
Last year, the soccer star accused President Charles Taylor of being jealous of his popularity, and ordering the destruction of his family home and shops in Monrovia. Weah says he had good information that Taylor was planning to kill him. "King George" vowed not to return to the country as long as Taylor was there. And Weah denies rumors he isconsidering running for president against strongman Taylor, but is clear about who he thinks should not be in that position.
"I miss the people of Liberia as much as they miss me," says Weah today, speaking in a phone interview from the United Arab Emirates where he is currently playing. "But I can't come back, because if I do I could be imprisoned, and the people will have no power to release me. They have no power for anything."
"Soccer is a game of hope and in this country where there's so little of that, that's important," he says. "But it has become impossible to even bring that little hope here."
The government is offended and and angered by Weah.
"We love the guy and I personally would embrace him if he came to town," says Minister of Youth and Sports Max M. Dennis.
"But George should watch what he says and be more circumspect," he says. "In Africa the traditional chief is someone who demands respect and when you have a president like Charles Taylor, who won the popular support of his country democratically, there should be no stain on his tapestry of leadership."
Down the next street corner from the soccer club, in a cramped barbershop, two dozen paying customers are glued to an old battery-powered TV there is no central electricity in Liberia watching South Korea beat Poland.
Admission is 20 cents, not a luxury everyone can afford. So the club members pitch in and sponsor a representative to go watch. He, in turn, runs back and forth between the TV site and the club, whispering the play status to the tea man, who takes up a green magic marker and adjusts the scoreboard tacked to the club's back wall.
"We don't always have the opportunity to actually watch the game," admits Mr. Koffar. "But we follow very closely."
There is a lull in the club debate, and someone takes the floor to talk about how Liberia might elevate its own team. "We need George back," he says. Koffar, the moderator, tells him to sit down, unsure of what ears may be listening.
"This is what happens in repressive countries," says Abel, a card-holding member of both the political and the soccer clubs, who declined to give his last name.
"First they constrain our speech on political issues and then those constrictions spread. Soon we will not be able to discuss anything without fear," he says.
The afternoon wears on and the soccer club members proceed, avoiding potentially touchy soccer-related topics, arguing at length about all others. They have nowhere else to go, anyway.
The rain dries up, a sweltering sun beats down. Members order more tea and launch into a new theme: "Cameroon's chances in the game against Germany [next Tuesday] and whether or not Liberians have to root for the African team because they are fellow Africans."
Outside, street boys play soccer with a Sprite can and make goal posts out of mangos. Most dream of better days.