Writing with a view from Yaoundé, Kangsen Wakai tracks football star George Weah’s journey from Monrovia’s marshland slums, through a little know stint with Cameroonian club TKC, to the summit of world football, and finally the presidency of his country of birth, to tell a pan-African story of football, national identity, politics and power.
Among the numerous congratulatory messages that poured into Monrovia for Liberia’s newly elected president was one from Yaoundé. “I want to take this occasion to wish the Liberian people peace, harmony and happiness,” read the message from Cameroon’s Paul Biya, a doyen among Africa’s big men, who expressed his well wishes to the 1995 Ballon d’Or for winning the Liberian presidential election.
The tone of the telegram was vintage Biya. It did nothing to underscore George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah’s remarkable feat of having dribbled himself out of Monrovia’s marshland slums to the summit of world football, before turning his sights on the presidency of his country of birth. Nor did it acknowledge the former star player’s connection to Cameroon, where he experienced one of the most important stages of his career between 1987 and 1988.
If you had scratched off the president elect’s name from the message, it could have been addressed to President John Magufuli of Tanzania, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso or even João Lourenço of Angola. You could have substituted Liberia with Malawi or Mali, and the telegram would have read with the same bland indifference that has characterized the Biya-method of diplomacy.
What visions might have animated President Biya’s psyche as he scribbled his name on the telegram congratulating the football icon? Cameroon’s “lion man“ is after all no stranger to the interplay between football and politics. He is said to have adopted his nickname after the country’s football team, the Indomitable Lions, reached the quarter-final of the 1990 World Cup, and the new stadium currently under construction in Olembe ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, will carry his name. With upcoming presidential elections, did he fixate his mind’s gaze on the image of someone in the liking of a dapper Samuel Eto’o, notoriously charismatic, sitting on the most elevated seat in the VIP suite at the Boulevard du 20 Mai on National Day watching troops marching past him?
Despite Biya’s silence, Weah’s history in Cameroon didn’t go unnoticed. The Cameroon Tribune, the country’s official daily, ran George Weah: Souvenirs de Yaoundé, a nod of sorts to the Liberian president-elect’s stint in Cameroon during the 1987-88 football season with TKC. At that time, the inhabitants of the country Weah landed in could not have imagined then that thirty-years later the man who was president then would still be president today. Nor that he would be married to someone other than Jeanne-Irène Biya. From Bonaberi to K-town by way of Abakwa, Cameroonians were singing along to Lapiro de Mbanga’s no make erreur; and dancing to former Les Cracks percussionist Bella Njoh’s mambo penya. The twenty-one-year-old striker settled in a country under the spell of Charlotte Mbango’s konkai makossa and Petit Pays’s ça fait mal; a country where Solo Muna, Kassav and Nayanka Bell were household names. That year, no one could not have guessed that a year later, a red-haired playmaker named Cyril Makanaky would help propel the indomitable lions to their second continent-wide title in Morocco.
As the Cameroon Tribune article recounted, Weah left Cameroon four matches short of the football season, in that time he clocked up fourteen goals in eighteen matches. Dieudonné Nké who played with Weah at TKC said that when he first arrived, he could barely speak any French, but quickly adapted. According to Nké, it was no different on the football field where it didn’t take long for Weah, alongside Ghanaian winger Koffi Abbrey, to impose themselves in the squad. Those were the days when the team’s executives treated players like extended family members, the TKC alum recalled.
In Weah’s case, he stayed in the household of TKC president General Pierre Semengue a month prior to signing for the club. Currently president of the country’s professional football league, General Semengue remains an influential figure in the country’s football circles. Thrilled by the news coming out of Monrovia, the 82-year former chief of staff of Cameroon’s Armed Forces recalled the “courageous, outgoing and hard working” kid who lived under his roof.
“In those days, Liberia was virtually a state in name only. So we offered him [Weah] Cameroonian citizenship, but he turned it down, insisting he wanted to remain Liberian. Because, I am a nationalist, I found that significant.”
The last time the General Pierre saw Weah was in 2012 in the midst of festivities marking Cameroonian striker Patrick M’boma’s football career. “He came by the house, and as usual, we hugged and had a long conversation.”
The Early Years
Before Weah dropped his kit at TKC’s Mvog-Ada headquarters, he had to claw his way out of 1980s West African football; an uncertain universe where an excess of raw talent comingled with nonbinding contracts and shadowy middlemen. Notwithstanding its reputation, it was where the early careers of legends like Ghana’s Abedi Pele, Nigeria’s Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal, and Senegal’s Jules Bocandé were all incubated.
As a child growing up in the West Point slums of nineteen-seventies Monrovia under the fleeting gaze of his grandmother, the young Weah would channel the rupture of his broken home to the game. This lead to his initiation in into Liberia’s amateur and semi-professional leagues. In 1981, at age fifteen, he signed with the Young Survivors of Clara Town, a suburb located in Monrovia’s marshlands. Then, not long after his move to Clara Town, the very shy and somewhat bookish boy earned a scholarship to Wells-Hairston High where some of his classmates still remember him practicing his signature during classes. It was also during this period that Omari Jackson, a perceptive young sports journalist, began taking note of the fifteen year old’s skills. He made sure to keep him on his radar.
Decades later, appearing on CCTV’s Faces of Africa in an episode profiling the footballer turned politician, Jackson remembered the striker’s early years.“Initially, he [Weah] was kind of a lazy player, but when the coaches realized that he had the talent and the ability to do what they wanted him to do, they spent time on him.”
In 1981, while coaches were conditioning the young Weah, Liberia, was under Master Sargeant Samuel Doe’s People’s Redemption Council (PRCThat year, a tough talking Ronald Reagan was sworn as president of the United States; two Libyan fighter jets are destroyed by American fighter jets over the Gulf of Sidra; Mohammed Ali lost his final fight to Trevor Berbick and France Football magazine named GC Mascara based Lakhdar Belloumi African player of the year. Meanwhile, in Cameroon, Paul Biya marked his sixth year as Prime Minister and constitutional heir to the presidency.
In 1984, the same year the PRC lifted its four-year ban on political activity in the country, Weah transferred to Bong Range. After spending a year there, he transferred to the two-decade old local powerhouse Mighty Barrolle where he began making his mark as a striker—scoring seven goals in ten games. Despite this new found penchant for goals, Weah was not a starter with Mighty Barrolle, which prompted his move to arch rivals, the Invisible Eleven. Here ints of his genius became more evident after he scored 24 goals in his 23 appearances with the club.
After spending a full season with Invisible Eleven, his next stop was with Abidjan’s storied African Sports in Cote D’Ivoire where he scored a goal in just two appearances.
Tonnerre Kalara Club (TKC) Yaoundé
After his brief stint in Cote D’Ivoire, Weah touched down in Yaoundé. The TKC he joined was one of a handful of teams in the Cameroon league that had known as much failure as it had triumph; a team where players, mediocre and great, had come and gone; a team whose rivals—big and small—had emerged and disappeared. Meanwhile the game had undergone changes of its own. Tonnerre was a team whose history was as byzantine as the city and country, which will eventually claim ownership of the icons that will pass through its ranks. The likes of Ernest Ebongué, Roger Milla, Charles Toubé, Stehen Tataw, Rigobert Song, Jean Makoun, and Chadian great Japhet Ndoram are just among a handful out of many. It is a history that is not only linked with the development of the game in the country, but whose subtexts provide edifying aspects of the territory’s evolution from settler colony to nation-state.
When football was first introduced to the area that eventually became Cameroon, it was played mostly by European settlers in the metropolises of Douala and Yaoundé. Like most social functions of the day, de jure and de facto segregation were the norm. In1930 the wall that had prevented the races from playing collapsed when the then French governor of Douala, in commemoration of Bastille Day, decided to organize a desegregated friendly football game pitting the Douala team against the Yaoundé team. One of the more memorable moments from this historically significant match was the inclusion of a certain Tobias Mimboe aka Bayard aka the “wiper” in the Douala team. According to legend, despite having lost the game, Bayard was jailed after the match by embarrassed colonial authorities for his flamboyant style of play and masterful dribbles against his white opponents; which in the authority’s view had the potential of demystifying an order that thrived on the idea of its own impregnability.
Then again, legend also attributes this match for inspiring a certain Omgba Zing, an Ewondo, who accompanied the Yaoundé team, to found the area’s first native football club on October 9th, 1930 at the home of a German settler in Mvog-Mbi. Zing’s tenure as both captain and president of Canon Sportif de Yaoundé was brief, coming to an end in 1934 after a conflict with the Etons put his ownership of the team into question. In November of that same year, Zing took his vision to the Mvog-Ada area of Yaounde and founded Tonnerre Kalara Club. And so began a crosstown rivalry, which could be argued to be partly responsible for the place football holds in the Cameroonian imaginary. Both teams are among a handful of teams that can claim credit for introducing some the games’ great talents to the national and international stage. During Cameroon’s first world cup finals in 1982, the year Biya became president, the team that represented Cameroon at the World Cup in Spain was made up of mostly players from both Yaoundé based rivals.
In fact, by the time Weah made his debut with Tonnerre in 1987 season, the team boasted of an African Cup Winners’ Cup (1975), three league titles, and two national cup titles. In the eyes of the average TKC fan, the team typified the belief that even if football was not born in Cameroon, at the very least, a strand from the national gene pool was embedded modern game’s DNA. It is in this framing that Weah, in less than one season, would write his legend in not only the team’s narrative, but the game’s history in Cameroon. Scoring fourteen goals in just eighteen appearances, Weah did not stay long enough to see TKC win the national league and national cup titles. Yet in that time, his myth would echo from gully-filled fields in Sangmelima to dusty playgrounds in Maroua.
Opposing defenders who encountered the striker in his playing days are unlikely to forget how casually he untangled the ball during duels and how fast he flicked those feet that once ran bare in the slums of Monrovia. Who dares not remember the pace with which that sturdy physique sped past them as if it was the run of his life? In the memoirs of their playing days, their encounter with Weah will be printed in bold.
Unlike the numerous nimble strikers able to scheme themselves out of a cluster of opponents, Weah whose dribbling chops were never in doubt, was a power striker who blasted through defensive walls with ease. It was his one-touch-and-strike approach in the eighteen-meter box and beyond, unleashing bullet-fast shots, that struck fear in the hearts of goalies he faced.
And while he did not lack the inventiveness that has marked the styles of lethal marksmen like Roger Milla and Asamoah Gyan, it was Weah’s ability to score from short, mid and long range, which distinguished and continue to distinguish him from others before, during and after him. But it was not only this precision, but rather an understanding of positioning during a play that made him an invaluable asset to his fellow offensive mates. Not every good striker is blessed with the combination of qualities that he possessed; the power to drive through defenses, the focus for ball possession, and a willingness, at the risk of injury, to do whatever their body permitted in search of that goal.
Whether it was on the rugged football terrains that characterized his Cameroonian chapter, or on the vaunted stages of European football, those who have watched Weah saw him dive almost recklessly headfirst between defenders, only to see the ball fly into the back of the net for moments later; they have seen him lift himself almost three feet high, legs crossed like scissors, then watched him whip a shot past a stunned goalie; their mouths have been left agape watching him run like a thoroughbred on a counter-attack, ball glued to his feet, and followed his every step until he released the ball with such force, the last thing they can remember is a shaking net. Those who listened to his games on radio have heard the likes of Zachary Nkou scream, “Weah, Weah, Weah, goal!!!!!”
It is tempting to imagine what might have become of the striker had Arsène Wenger’s scouts, invited by Cameroon coach Claude Le Roy to watch Stephen Tataw, not witnessed something special in the young Liberian besides the two goals he netted the day they watched him play. Would he have warmed up to the idea of Cameroonian nationality? Would he be opposing Biya today? It is hard to tell. Yet, what is beyond dispute is that Yaoundé was equally as providential in his journey to his country’s executive mansion.