Weah, Liberia’s gold
He’s still to this day the only African player to ever win the prestigious Ballon D’Or. But in order to get there, George Weah had to push himself to the limit in his native Liberia, then in Cameroon before crossing over to European football.
It’s a Tuesday: December 26th, 1995. In those glorious days, George Weah put on a traditional tie and his flashiest smile to receive, at age 29, the Ballon D’Or, his sport’s most prestigious award, leaving behind other nominees such as German player Jurgen Klinsmann and Finland’s Jari Litmanen. A first for Africa, and a record that still hasn’t been beaten, or even matched. A year prior, the forward centre was parading in his native Liberia with the African Ballon d’Or. It was a time to commemorate: his first steps on a field, his first ball offered at age seven by his grandmother, his formative club, the Young Survivors, for which he played from 1981 to 1984. Back then, the young George gives it his very best: “I was selling lollies and bags of pop-corn”, he told French newspaper L’Humanité. “Each months I’d make around 16 dollars, that I’d put aside to help the club.”
Lobbying Claude Le Roy
Talented, powerful, forward in his style yet unique in his technique, the one we then called Oppong goes through Liberia’s best clubs in only three seasons (most notably the Invincible Eleven). His striking talent his one to behold: 24 goals in 23 games! Definitely enough to convince the talent scouts. George then leaves for Cameroon and Le Tonnerre De Yaoundé (Yaoundé’s thunder). On the untameable lions’ ground, the 20 year old kid from Monrovia is being closely watched by Claude Le Roy, then Cameroon’s national team manager. “Weah’s first quality is perseverance”, recalls the African football expert at the player’s jubilee in 2005. “He came for weeks to grab my attention trough Yaoundé’s stadium’s barriers for me to launch him.” Impressed by the striker (14 goals in 18 games with the Tonnerre), Le Roy whispers George’ name to Arsène Wenger, then Monaco’s coach, who took that chance.
Wenger: “Easter’s chocolate bunny”.
In Europe, Oppong is ready to become Mister George, even if some in Monaco are doubtful. “When we saw him arrive, even though we knew the club rarely made bad calls when it came to recruiting, we kind a wonder what he was doing there”, Patrick Valery, his teammate at the ASM for three seasons, recalls. “He was a bit chubby, not at the top of the pack. He just didn’t fit the top player profile. That’s actually why Arsène Wenger put him on a diet. But he was happy listening and working. (…) Yet after a few weeks, he showed us all off. Once he got used to the European working standard, he was a sight to behold! Every training session he blew our minds. We knew we had a real monster with us, someone meant to reach stardom. He had it all: the confidence, the work ethics, the endurance, and no small dose of talent.”
Wenger’s awe struck as well: “Weah was the true surprise, the Easter chocolate bunny all kids wish they found in their garden when the holiday rolls in. I haven’t seen anyone take off the way he did since Weah.” The following events were simply obvious: scores of goals, admirable performances, high salaries which he used to help his country, national titles, a transfer to the PSG then to the AC Milan, where he would raise his Ballon d’Or… But what always stayed in his mind what the land he grew up on: “I’m especially proud of these titles, they meant a lot for my country. My fellow citizens celebrated them with me, and together, we contributed to put Liberia on the map.” His Liberia.