Can a former footballer unite Liberia?

Wildly popular soccer star George Weah announced this week he'll run for president next year.

There's a saying here that only one thing can bring Liberians together: their love for soccer.

Now the most talented Liberian ever to kick a ball wants to parlay that love for the sport into votes at election time. Soccer star and national hero George Weah announced this week that he will run for president.

Mr. Weah's candidacy is anything but trifling - his popular appeal here cuts across ethnic groups, gender, class, and even warring factions. Many people perceive him as a neutral who could heal a bitterly divided society, a man with the stature to transcend the coups and civil war that have plagued Liberia for the past two decades.

Coming from outside typical political channels, he could be called the Arnold Schwarzenegger of West Africa.

"At this moment, he's the only person who can unify the entire country," says Joseph Dortu, general manager of Royal Communications, which consists of a TV station and radio station owned by Weah in the capital Monrovia. Weah is "embedded with charisma, a born leader," continues Mr. Dortu. But he cautions: "I've told him he's got to be strategic. This isn't football, this is a nation."

Weah (pronounced WEE-ah) has more than a sporting chance to win the election scheduled to take place next October. Liberia's current transitional government is headed by a compromise chairman, who is barred from running under the terms of a UN-monitored peace agreement. As such, Weah doesn't need to battle an incumbent, and the presence of some 14,000 UN peacekeepers suggests that Liberia will have its safest - and perhaps most transparent - election campaign.

At least 40 people have already declared their intentions to seek the presidency, and it's a measure of Weah's popularity that many of them reportedly asked him to be their running mate. But if he's good enough to be vice president, his supporters argue, why isn't he good enough for the top job?

His critics tend to focus on his lack of formal education: He dropped out of school to pursue his soccer career. Some claim Weah is too naive for the inherently corrupt and often violent game of Liberian politics. While his intentions may be pure, some observers say he could easily be manipulated by those around him.

"He doesn't have the intellect to be president," insists Shadrack, a teacher in the eastern town of Zwedru.

"I think he's only good for football," adds Fred Scott, a farmer in the nearby town of Zleh.

"We've had people with PhDs who got into power and did nothing to benefit us," shoots back Carl, a barber who works on Randall Street in central Monrovia. "Liberians are fed up with politicians. They've wrecked the country. We want someone different."

"We have been through a lot of pain and hard times and suffering," says Geraldine, who works for the national oil company. "We need somebody in Liberia who will listen. George Weah, we feel he can listen to the people."

Like most Liberians, Weah grew up poor. His father was a mechanic, and his mother sold basic goods from a table near Monrovia's waterfront. His care was mainly left to his grandmother. Also like most Liberians, Weah was not untouched by the war. Members of former President Charles Taylor's military burned down his house in 1996, a few days after Weah's comments about the need for democracy in his country appeared in The New York Times.

Supporters are pitching him as someone whom Liberians can trust; a sincere, unselfish man who doesn't want or need to enrich himself off the country's resources. He is sometimes said to be the only Liberian millionaire who earned his money through honest means - by playing soccer.

He starred with a variety of European clubs during his career, including the French powerhouse Paris St-Germain, Italy's AC Milan, and the English squad Chelsea. In 1995 he was named World Player of the Year, making him the first African to win the award.

A phrase often heard from ordinary voters is that Weah "has Liberia at heart." They are charmed by his donations for schools and clinics, and praise his single-handed financial backing for the beleaguered national soccer team, which brought them to within a game of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

"The bottom line is that he has a good heart," says Jacqueline Capehart, owner of a travel agency in central Monrovia and a prominent figure among a group of women supporting Weah's candidacy. "He has always helped his friends, his family, his neighbors, and people he doesn't even know."

Weah has certainly shown more of a social conscience than the typical pro athlete.He has been a United Nations Children's Fund goodwill ambassador for seven years, speaking out about AIDS prevention, urging children to stay in school, and publicizing the plight of child soldiers. In July, the actor Denzel Washington presented him with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to a sports figure for outstanding humanitarian work.

And while some people here argue that Weah wouldn't be a good president, it's hard to find anyone willing to bet against him winning.

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