George Weah and the ease of leadership


As George Oppong Weah prepares to transition from football player to president, there will be many stories told and written of his ascent to the highest office in his country. Few will capture the essence of the man. Still, we will try.

In May 2001, Nigeria's Super Eagles squared up against Liberia in a pivotal 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Port Harcourt. Leading the Lone Star charge was 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah, whose sheer force of football talent and financial will was threatening to carry them over the line.

Weah's drive and inspiration had seen them turn an opening day loss at Sudan into a four-game winning streak, defeating both Nigeria, at home in Monrovia, and Ghana, away in Accra.

A result against the Super Eagles would have put Weah's team in control of the group and all but assured them of a place in Japan and Korea. Weah poured his personal financial resources into the campaign, ensuring that players' flight tickets and allowances were paid.

On the field, as he had done all campaign, Weah was a general, egging his troops on by personal example and force of will. Unfortunately, Nigeria had rookie Joseph Yobo on that day. The youngster was tasked with the unenviable task of minding the experienced forward.

Yobo did such an effective job that a frustrated Weah was forced to resort to physical tackles against the youngster, as Nwankwo Kanu and Victor Agali secured a 2-0 win for Nigeria.

Weah stormed into the post-match press conference, fuming ,and laid into Nigeria's man-marking tactics, especially when asked about his physical clashes with Yobo.

"It's a man's game," was his short-fused response. "He kicked me so I kicked him."

Afterwards, at the Hotel Presidential, Weah came down to visit with the young Yobo, commending him on a good performance and giving him words of encouragement.

"I was surprised," Yobo said. "I didn't expect that from him after the way we clashed during the game. But it showed what a big man he is and my respect for him went up that day."

A few years later, another Nigerian was to benefit from Weah's Afrocentric leadership. As the Liberian icon negotiated a transfer from AC Milan to Chelsea, he insisted that a young, unknown African agent be involved in the move.

That agent was John Shittu, who later went on to manage Yobo and John Mikel Obi. Like Yobo, Shittu did not expect the gesture.

"I barely knew him at the time, although we had been introduced by a mutual friend. But he told them that the deal would only go through if I was involved."

That was how Shittu got his first break in European football player management. The Nigerian has never forgotten.

Beyond the widely-acclaimed personal investment in his national team, thoughtful acts like these -- acts he neither needed nor was compelled to do -- speak to the measure of the man.

Disappointed though he was to lose the last presidential elections to Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Weah went back and invested in personal self-development, including earning a Masters degree as he prepared to return for another run.

This never-say-die attitude that was evident during his playing career remains now, and will be of immense value as he prepares to lead his country.

Liberia are already immensely lucky to have George Weah, and if he takes a similar approach to his impending leadership, they would have been twice blessed.