Liberia – where no-one dares to tackle President George Weah
Liberia’s President George Weah was once an international footballer and still sometimes plays on Saturdays as the BBC’s Mike Thomson discovered when he was invited to watch a kick around where some players seemed hesitant to tackle the country’s leader.
The call that came in the early hours was unexpected. “The president’s car is outside,” I was told, “it’s waiting to take you to his excellency’s football match.”
I don’t often get invites to watch heads of state kick balls about but that itself wasn’t the surprise on this occasion. It’s just that former Fifa World Footballer of the Year, George Weah, now president of Liberia, was supposed to be in Madagascar. Obviously, plans had changed.
After a hurried bite of toast, we sped off through a still waking Monrovia before arriving at the Ministry of Defence.
Had the driver got lost, I wondered? But sure enough, as we drove through the security gates, there behind an austere grey building, was a large football pitch.
One of the first players I saw was a tall, middle-aged man wearing black shorts and a blue number 14 shirt.
‘I’m the best dribbler’
After ambling back and forth, without seeming to break a sweat, he beckoned to a member of his team.
Seconds later a commentator screamed over the PA system: “His Excellency is on the ball… he’s going for goal… oh, what a pass!”
So, yes, this was indeed the former AC Milan, Chelsea and Monaco star, turned leader of Liberia.
That may be but a few minutes later, his team’s coach, former Arsenal player, Christopher Wreh, came up with a rather different explanation.
After telling me proudly that the president’s team has never, ever, lost a match, he added:
“No-one tackles him. We do advise the team that you don’t go into a tackle with the president. You avoid contact – no contact with the president.”
This may help explain why even at the age of 52, George Weah remains the team’s top goal scorer. His team won 3-1 that day.
Rent a crowd?
My next encounter with the president, to discuss his first year in office, was set for 11:30 local time four days later.
Though 11:30 soon became 12:30, then 13:30 slid into 14:30 and still no sign of the president.
Finally, dressed in a white tunic and trousers, Mr Weah breezed into the room saying: “Gentlemen, it’s time for lunch.