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A Good Man In Africa As coach and star of Liberia's national soccer team and as a benefactor to legions of his countrymen, George Weah is a rare ray of hope in a poor and violent place

April 16, 2001
April 16, 2001

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April 16, 2001

A Good Man In Africa As coach and star of Liberia's national soccer team and as a benefactor to legions of his countrymen, George Weah is a rare ray of hope in a poor and violent place

Jack the Rebel came calling in May of that year, as the rainy
season began and the civil war spun into endgame. The streets of
Liberia's capital, Monrovia, bore the latest bad fruit of Charles
Taylor's seven-year drive for power: boy soldiers killing for
fun, 3,000 dead within the previous two months, U.S. Marines
evacuating thousands of foreigners, and warlords and their armies
looting the city in a final spasm of greed. Jack the Rebel pulled
up at George Weah's house in a convoy consisting of one military
transport and five pickup trucks, some 70 men spilling out the
sides. Jack the Rebel stood with a piece of paper in hand and
shouted, "Everybody out! Get your asses out!" When the dozen or
so men and 17 women in the house--friends, relatives and employees
of Weah's--emerged and saw the waiting troops, they began to
tremble like leaves in a howling wind, because they assumed it
was time to die.

This is an article from the April 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

The men were told to line up with their hands on a wall that
shielded the house from the street. The women were sent back
inside. Jack the Rebel waved the piece of paper and said, "George
Weah has written a letter saying he wants to be president of this
country. He doesn't want to play football anymore. He's getting
into politics." Then the troops began beating the men.

One soldier proclaimed, "Each woman will receive seven men here
tonight! If anybody shakes, we'll kill every one of you!" The air
echoed with the cocking of automatic weapons. A pack of soldiers
went into the house. The screams began not long after, and
sometime later a soldier came out and said to the troops guarding
the men, "If you stay there, you'll miss everything we're
enjoying!"

That is how the soldiers came to leave the men with their hands
on the wall, and the men took the opportunity to flee. The troops
began sacking Weah's home, emptying it of everything of value:
furniture, clothing, crockery, spoons, doors, cameras, someone's
pet crocodile, a prized album of photos from Weah's brilliant
career. The soldiers also took two of Weah's cars: a Mercedes and
a Land Rover. "If they couldn't carry it," says one witness,
"they destroyed it." Then they splashed the house with gasoline
and set it on fire.

Weah was in Italy, starring for the European soccer power AC
Milan, when he heard that his house had been burned and that all
the women inside, including two of his teenage cousins, had been
raped. Only four months earlier the international soccer
federation (FIFA) had named Weah World Player of the Year for
1995; he was the greatest soccer talent Africa had produced,
Liberia's proudest export. Being a national hero, however, did
not make him untouchable. On May 20, 1996, three days before the
assault on his house and family, The New York Times had quoted
Weah as saying the U.N. should move into Liberia, supplant the
battling warlords and teach his country democratic ways.

Later Taylor, a former government minister who would be elected
president of Liberia in July 1997, insisted that he had not
ordered the attack on Weah's house, but who believed him? Taylor
had assured Weah that his belongings would be safe. He had, in
fact, charged Jack the Rebel--the nom de guerre of Taylor's loyal
lieutenant George Dwannah--with protecting Weah's home.
Nonetheless, the day before the troops surrounded the place, Jack
the Rebel had told Weah by telephone that the arrangement was
over. The soccer player was now seen as a political threat.

In the ensuing days Taylor declared that those responsible for
the attack would be found and punished, but nothing of the kind
happened. Today Jack the Rebel is a colonel in President Taylor's
personal army, the Special Security Service. Immediately after
the attack Taylor's longtime aide Reginald Goodrich, now his
press secretary, took possession of Weah's Mercedes and drove it
proudly through the city.

When Weah and his wife, Clar, returned to Liberia for the first
time after the attack, in the spring of 1997, they attended a
gathering at the home of Alhaji Kromah, who had been an ally of
Taylor's during the citywide carnage of the spring of '96. Clar
gasped, and George hissed at her not to say a word. There,
according to a witness, was the table that had sat in the Weahs'
living room.

Friends had advised Weah not to return that spring. Clar had
implored him to stay away until peace returned. Even today, with
Liberia relatively calm and Weah's stature further enhanced by
his stewardship of the potent national team, the Lone Star, Clar
fears the worst. "Whenever George goes to Liberia, I'm afraid,"
she says in their house in Queens, N.Y. "The country's happy
because the Lone Star is winning, but I still tell him, 'George,
call me as soon as you get there.' I was afraid they were going
to kill George."

Weah doesn't listen. He has returned to Liberia time and again in
the last five years, even though Taylor has retooled his brutal
rebellion into brutal rule. Weah, 34, has always believed that a
man who burns the bridge to his past is lost. If someone else
does the burning, "you build a bridge and go across," he says.
"You always have to come back."

This time, a late night in February 2001, Weah flies to Liberia
from France, where he now plays for the team Olympique
Marseilles. As he strides across the tarmac in Monrovia, people
rush out of the darkness to touch him. A huge crowd waits at one
end of the runway, some members waving a banner of welcome. He
steps into the pack and disappears, wrapped in its embrace.
"Silence!" one man commands. "Let the king speak!"

Weah thanks the welcomers, whispers a few pleasantries, says
nothing earthshaking. It doesn't matter. The crowd cheers the
moment he stops speaking, because what's important is that George
Weah is home when he doesn't have to be; when he could be in the
U.S. with his wife and three children; when he could be in
Marseilles, where the water actually flows out of faucets and the
buildings aren't pocked by gunfire. The people cheer because as
Liberia sinks further into the ranks of pariah states, Weah not
only returns but also comes bearing the ultimate gift:
distraction. For this week, at least, there's a chance for
Liberians to obsess about the national team and drink a bit and
forget that, after 11 years of unrelenting misery, their world is
still going straight to hell.

Each day passes, and each day he smiles, dances, betrays no
nerves, though the stars have aligned to make this trip
extraordinary. Not long ago Weah--name and fortune made over two
decades with his dazzling play for AS Monaco, for Paris-St.
Germain and, especially, for the 1996 and '99 Italian league
champion, AC Milan--had resigned himself to retiring without
representing country and continent in the World Cup. Playing for
his third professional team in 10 months and having been
relegated from striker to midfield, he seemed sure to become the
greatest player since England's George Best to miss out on
sport's greatest event. Then, handed one last chance, Weah began
to concoct a sporting miracle.

Since last June, when he took over as the Lone Star's technical
director and coach as well as its star player, Weah has set up
goal after goal and led Liberia to nine wins in 10 games,
including upsets of Ghana and powerhouse Nigeria. But the
upcoming home game on Sunday, Feb. 25, against the pathetic team
from Sierra Leone, will be "the most important of all," he says,
because if Liberia wins, it will vault past Nigeria to the top of
Africa's Group B in the 2002 World Cup qualifying tournament with
four games to go, putting untold pressure on Nigeria--only one
team from the group qualifies--and giving the Lone Star's players
a taste of rarefied air.

Like all of life in Liberia, though, the match has been
complicated by Taylor. In December a U.N. report called Taylor
"the single most destabilizing force in West Africa," accusing
him of supplying the rebel forces of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary
United Front with arms in exchange for diamonds. That wasn't
Taylor's first dose of international condemnation. A fugitive
from Liberian justice who had been charged with embezzling
$900,000 from the government, Taylor used a hacksaw and knotted
bedsheets to break out of a Massachusetts jail where he was
awaiting extradition in 1985. He then fled to Libya, where he
cultivated a close relationship with its strongman, Mu'ammar
Gadhafi. Taylor returned to Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989 and,
with a small group of rebels, began a campaign of terror.
Human-rights groups have charged Taylor with the gamut of wartime
atrocities: systematic dismemberment of civilians; use of rape to
spread fear; injection of heroin and cocaine into child soldiers
to blunt their aversion to killing.

The U.S. has placed a travel ban on Taylor and members of his
government, and the December U.N. report recommended that the ban
be extended worldwide, along with embargoes on the purchase of
Liberian diamonds and timber. Now, as military skirmishes along
Liberia's borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea foster one of the
world's worst refugee crises, the Liberian football association
hasn't heard from its Sierra Leone counterpart. On Tuesday, Feb.
20, word comes that Sierra Leone has petitioned FIFA to cancel
Sunday's game or move it. The team is too frightened to come to
Monrovia to play.

"Sports people can protect the players," Weah says. "Whatever it
costs to safeguard the Sierra Leone players, we will do it."

Thus the week unfolds as a strange dance of contrasts: Weah
extending an open hand, Taylor shaking his fist. On Wednesday,
Taylor jails four Liberian newspapermen for treason after they
report that Taylor's regime spent $73,000 on Christmas cards and
helicopter repairs at a time when Monrovia's main hospital was
closed for lack of funds and civil servants were going unpaid. On
Thursday the government raids four newspapers and shuts them
down. Weah, meanwhile, makes preparations for a small peace
ceremony that he has arranged before Sunday's game, and when, on
Thursday, FIFA denies Sierra Leone's petition to cancel or move
the game, he sends word that he will host a postgame party at his
house for the Sierra Leone team, win or lose.

This is why Weah collects nicknames, such as Big Papa, that try
to capture his essence, and why Liberian customs agents need
write only KING GEORGE in their ledgers to mark his arrival. It
is why, when a sour-faced Liberian official upbraids a foreign
photographer for snapping pictures of kids playing soccer, only
to hear that the man is a guest of Weah's, the official softens.
"The Ambassador?" he asks, referring to Weah. "Welcome to
Liberia!"

Liberians, like most soccer fanatics, hate losing; a poor
performance guarantees the heaping of insults and threats on any
available player. "If you lose in this country, they will kill
you," says Francois Massaquoi, Liberia's minister of youth and
sports. "But I sleep; I snore in the night. Even if we lose on
Sunday, the fans know this team has done its best. They trust
George."

They know: No one has given more of himself to Liberia over the
last decade. Weah, who earned more than $15 million during his
prime years with AC Milan, paid close to $2 million out of his
own pocket to keep the Lone Star alive after the civil war began
in 1990. He moved the Lone Star's training camp to nearby Ivory
Coast and became a one-man football association, supplying
jerseys, cleats and equipment and paying the players' salaries.
After Taylor's men burned his house in 1996, Weah only
intensified his efforts on the team's behalf. That May he sent
someone through rebel lines with money to charter a bus for the
Lone Star to travel from Ivory Coast to a game in Accra, Ghana.
That October, Weah bought tickets to fly in 10 Liberian players
from Europe, chartered a plane for $47,000 to fly the team to a
game in Zaire and paid everyone in the 27-man delegation a per
diem of anywhere from $400 to $1,000. Of the 25 players on the
current Lone Star, 10 landed overseas contracts because Weah
recommended them, paid for their flights to tryouts, put his name
on the line for them. A half dozen other Liberian players owe
their overseas careers to Weah.

Then there are the stories about how Weah sent one Liberian he
had never met to the U.S. for medical treatment; how he kept
handing money to patients in the hospital in Abidjan, the capital
of Ivory Coast ($1,000 here, $1,000 there); and how, whenever
Weah returned to Liberia for Christmas, he would withdraw $20,000
from the bank in $20s and $50s. Then he would stand at the front
door of his house, and, Clar says, "people would come, and George
would give them Christmas."

"He's been designated by God," says Liberian striker Frank
Seator. "George has assisted millions of people, indirectly and
directly. We have ministers here who have money, and they don't
give anybody one cent. But he takes his time, his money, to go
out to the people. It's not 'Come to my house on Monday, I'll
give you money.' He goes to them and gives money. I'm telling
you: He's designated. You can't get over how he lives his life."

Asked about this, Weah says only that the Liberian people paid
the taxes that paid for him to improve as a player, especially
when an earlier government sent him to Brazil to polish his
skills. He currently supports more than 150 people in Liberia but
figures that's the least he can do. "Everything I have, I owe to
the Liberian people," Weah says. "I give back what they gave me."

Hoover Amos, one of Weah's security men, says many Liberians have
a different explanation. "My father says George has the spirit of
Jesus Christ," Amos says. "He calls George 'Wonderful.' Anytime
George is about to come to the country, my father says, 'Oh,
Lord, Jesus Christ is coming. Wonderful is coming.'"

Everyone agrees that Weah could be elected president in a
landslide. He insists he has no interest in politics--Weah's
associates say the letter Jack the Rebel brandished was a
fabrication--but he is well aware of his power. A few years ago
Weah told a U.S. newspaper, "I could take out the warlords...My
followers could take over the country," but he said that would
only create more bloodshed. Besides, Clar has forbidden him even
to think about running for office. "I think he would be
assassinated," she says.

In 1997 Taylor ran for president--serenaded by his infamous
campaign song, "You kill my ma, you kill my pa, [but] I will
vote for you!"--and received 75% of the vote in an election that
international observers, including Jimmy Carter, declared clean.
Today, with most of his wartime rivals exiled, bought off or
killed, Taylor is unchallenged. So it is that Africa's oldest
republic, a country founded by former U.S. slaves seeking
freedom, has only two poles of power left: a king and a
dictator, one prompting love and the other fear, each uneasily
feeding the other's dream. Taylor needs a winning Lone Star to
divert people's attention from his regime's misdeeds. Weah needs
Taylor's support, or at least benign neglect, to get to the
World Cup.

A week like this, however, allows Weah barely enough time to
think that far ahead. On Tuesday morning, between running Lone
Star practices, tending to his family and stopping by the courier
service to pick up the team's uniforms, Weah begins a grueling
round of visits to Monrovia girls' schools. He plunges into one
classroom after another, telling girls of various ages that he
would put up money if they would begin playing soccer, if they
would stay away from boys, or at least use condoms.

"Nobody's educating our girls to protect themselves," Weah says
before one group. "Please," he tells another, "I want to help."
The next day he tells another class, "You are the people of
tomorrow. Forget about boys. Boys are trouble. Boys make mothers
and don't want to see them." Weah promises the girls he'll come
to their games, help coach them, play with them. Please, he says.

No one asks why he's so impassioned about the subject. This kind
of mission is expected from Weah, so he doesn't feel the need to
tell the girls what he learned when he arrived in Liberia this
time. He doesn't tell them that on Monday night, only 2 1/2 weeks
after he'd learned that his 16-year-old sister, Karmah, had had a
baby out of wedlock, someone told him that a teenage cousin of
his had given birth and begun to bleed and never stopped. He
doesn't say that the funeral will be on Saturday, just after
morning practice.

The first time Anthony Tokpah saw what George Weah had done to
the Lone Star, he began to cry. This was in December. By 1998
Tokpah, a longtime goalie on the national team, had become fed up
with the parade of weak coaches and the poor management, and he
vowed never again to suit up for Liberia. But when Weah, in his
new role as player-coach, called Tokpah and asked him to join the
team for an African Nations Cup qualifier against South Africa,
he had no choice. "He's too big," Tokpah says. "We all owe him.
We know what he's done for the country, for the world...and he
helped me go play in Europe for four years."

Still, when Tokpah showed up in Johannesburg, he expected the
same old Lone Star. Liberia had always produced aggressive
finishers, but its lack of a recognizable system made the team as
dangerous to itself as it was to opponents. Yet under Weah, who
demanded that players train together for one week--instead of the
usual one day--before each game, the Lone Star had cohered into a
patient, confident unit. Though Liberia would lose 2-1 to South
Africa (Weah's only loss since taking over last June), Tokpah was
astonished. "They were playing together," he says. Sitting on the
team bench in Johannesburg, the goaltender with 2 SAD on his
license plate bowed his head and wept out of pure happiness.

By then Weah's magic had long taken hold of the other players.
Handed the team after Liberia's 2-0 loss to Sudan, Weah faced
what seemed a ridiculous challenge: Nigeria. The Super Eagles had
dominated Africa for a decade and had won over the planet as the
darlings of the last two World Cups and as champions of the 1996
Olympics. Liberia hadn't competed well against Africa's best
teams since the late '80s, and only five of the dozen-plus
Liberian professionals who play abroad bothered to come home to
play Nigeria. Still Weah kept asking friends, "Can Nigeria fly?
If they don't fly, we will beat them." The night before the game,
Liberian Football Association president Edwin Snowe stayed up
until 3 a.m. worrying. "We're going to win 2-1," Weah told him.
"Relax. Go to sleep."

At game time Monrovia's Samuel K. Doe Stadium, with 35,000 seats,
was only half filled. Many Liberians wore Nigeria's colors. Weah
had only 11 players. By the time the game ended--in a 2-1 Liberian
victory, with Weah setting up both scores--Charles Taylor was
dancing in the stands.

Weah's prediction had been no fluke. "He does this with
everyone," says goalkeeper Louis Crayton. Years ago Crayton,
angry over his relegation to the bench, wanted to quit the Lone
Star. Weah told him that soccer was a game you cannot cheat,
that Crayton had to keep playing because he never knew when his
chance would come, and Weah guaranteed it would come. Then,
Crayton says, it did: He is now the Lone Star's starting goalie.
"The wisdom, the understanding, the knowledge--this is all from
God," Crayton says of Weah. "Because when he speaks to you, the
words are prophetic."

Maybe that's what has the Lone Star so inspired. Or maybe, as
Massaquoi puts it, "Now the players know they have somebody they
can't bull----." Certainly Weah knows everything they've been
through--and then some. Abandoned by his parents at birth, raised
by his devoutly Christian grandmother, Emma Klon Jleh Brown, Weah
spent his youth on the streets in the Monrovia neighborhood of
Gibraltar, playing barefoot soccer, smoking an occasional joint,
selling popcorn, rummaging through garbage for bottles to sell,
gambling. Every Saturday his grandmother sat him down and told
him to work hard, stay honest.

"All the minutes and seconds and hours in my career, my entire
life, I dedicate to my grandmother," Weah says. His clock began
ticking in 1981, when the 15-year-old Weah began a quick rise
through the cream of Liberia's soccer teams: Young Survivors,
Mighty Barolle, the Invincible Eleven. While Weah captained the
IE, his speed and towering presence caught the eye of a scout for
Cameroon's powerhouse, Tonnerre de Yaounde. After Weah helped
Tonnerre win a national title in 1988, Cameroon's national team
coach, Claude le Roy, told Arsene Wenger, then coach of AS
Monaco, that he had struck gold: a lithe, 6'2" striker with a
magician's touch. Wenger flew down and signed Weah, but within
four years Paris beckoned. After Weah led Paris-St. Germain to
two French Cup championships and the '94 French League title, he
had only one more level to conquer.

However, just a few weeks after Weah signed with AC Milan in May
1995, his grandmother died. Weah had been a practicing Muslim for
a decade. In honor of his grandmother he converted back to
Christianity. For her, he pushed his game even higher. Weah's
ability to find seams for the most implausible passes, to produce
one astonishing run after another, left aficionados breathless.
After scoring 11 goals in '95, he became the only player to be
named European, African and world player of the year. On opening
day of the '96 season he cut through, over and around seven
Verona players to produce a spectacular coast-to-coast score that
remains one of the greatest in the game's history.

Much of what makes Weah unique is there in that run: creativity,
grace and aggressive pride. Liberians may think him saintly, and
he likes to think of himself as pious, but there's a part of Weah
that is always ready to fight. While playing for Paris- St.
Germain in the early 1990s, he became incensed when a Paris
police officer pulled him over. Convinced that he was being
harassed because of his skin color, Weah got into a shoving match
with the cop, who pulled out his gun. Weah yanked it out of the
gendarme's hand and waved it in his face. His car was impounded,
never to be seen again. Then there was this infamous incident in
November '96: After a game in which Porto defender Jorge (the
Animal) Costa stepped on, kicked and provoked him with racist
taunts, Weah waited for Costa in the tunnel beneath the stadium
and shattered his nose with a head butt. "I did what I was
supposed to do," Weah says.

None of that fire has burned off with the years, no matter how
casual Weah appears. When you least expect it, in fact, he
erupts. "We must be paid!" he shouts. "It is our constitutional
right. You understand? We have to be paid!"

It is late Thursday evening, three days before the Sierra Leone
game. No one has heard from Sierra Leone yet, but Weah isn't
thinking about that. He is thinking about the $5,000 per game
that each Liberian player receives from the government, and how
that fee can't come close to covering most players' expenses or
insurance or the salaries they lose when they leave their
professional teams to play for the Lone Star. Weah is thinking
about a government in which some men are getting rich while some
of his national-team members must bum rides because they can't
afford cars.

"Players don't have anything," Weah says. "Some have been on the
national team for almost 17 years, but they don't even have a
pin, something that shows, 'I got this through the national
team.' It's sad. Even the young guys are doing their best, and
what are they getting? Nothing, and I feel it is cheating."

Before their previous two games, in January, Lone Star players
threatened to strike if they weren't paid in advance. Each time
Snowe showed up with a suitcase of cash hours before game time.
This week it is lost on no player that Massaquoi, the former
leader of a faction aligned with Taylor during the war, is
driving a new Mitsubishi Pajero. "We all play the game, and he's
benefiting," Weah says. "He's got a new Jeep! The players are
getting nothing. Do you think it's fair?"

Weah is careful not to name people above Massaquoi, because he
knows what can happen to men who speak out in Liberia. It's clear
that the issue goes beyond money, that Weah, like a lot of his
countrymen, thinks Taylor takes advantage of the Lone Star. Weah
was no supporter of the corrupt, often savage government of
Samuel Doe, from 1980 to '89, but he says national-team players
were appreciated back then. When they beat Ghana in 1988, Doe
gave each player an acre of land. A tie game netted a player
$10,000; a win was worth $25,000. Doe would personally drive the
team onto the field before games.

Weah threatens to quit. He threatens a team strike. This won't
happen, of course; no one has more interest in playing, and
playing well, than the Lone Star players. Still, Weah wants to
stir up public support because he has a real hammer now--because,
as Massaquoi says, "George Weah and football are the only things
we have to hold on to. Football is the glue that holds this
country together."

So maybe if the Lone Star keeps winning, not even Taylor can
withstand the pressure. "We've got all the people on the
government's back," says James (Miracle Man) Debbah, the team's
star striker. "There's no way they can go against it."

Weah again wants to make one thing clear: He wants his team to be
treated fairly; he does not want power. "I have my own power," he
says. "I have my constitutional rights. I am king in the eyes of
the law because God gives me blessing. Anything that's going to
happen to me, only God knows. So I'm not frightened of anybody
for anything."

He says this late on Thursday night, sitting in what used to be
the master bedroom of the house that Taylor's men burned in 1996.
Weah rebuilt the place, planning to move back in. "I lived here
three days," he says, surrounded by players, hangers-on, soccer
officials, women. "But I didn't like the feeling. The spirit of
the house was not the way it used to be. A lot of atrocities
happened here, and I couldn't live with that spirit. So I had to
move to my new place."

He speaks about the incident a bit more, and then his temper
rises again, and he begins to talk quickly. He is angry but
careful. "I don't want an apology from anybody," Weah says. "I'm
hurt. I'm still serving this country as a national-team player;
that's my duty to the Liberian people. But my house cost me
personal money. Everything they took from me? One day I'm going
to get it. They're going to pay for my house. They will pay one
day."

The thousands of people who line Tubman Boulevard hear the Lone
Star bus before they see it, carried as it is on a wave of
screaming. The bus is packed with players in suits and ties. It
rolls past St. Peter's Lutheran Church, where Doe's men killed at
least 600 people. Past billboards that say, WORDS CAN BE MORE
HARMFUL THAN BULLETS AND UNBALANCED NEWS IS ALSO A HUMAN RIGHTS
ABUSE. Past the Pentecostal Church, the Baptist relief mission,
the Assembly of God mission school and all the other missionary
hubs of what seems to be the nation's one thriving institution.
Past the airfield, where hundreds of kids play soccer in the
dirt and where, in April 1996, soldiers stabbed Frank Seator's
brother to death in front of his mother. Sunday church services
stop in mid-sentence; people smile for the first time in a month,
men in camouflage hop from foot to foot and thrust their rifles
toward the sky. The bus bearing the slogan THE NATION'S PRIDE AND
JOY makes a right turn down Airport Road, leading a caravan of
cars through the heat-blasted afternoon. The Sierra Leone team
finally showed up yesterday. The bus turns into Samuel K. Doe
Stadium, and a man with no legs tries to crawl after it as it
passes.

Asked earlier this week if he thought his team could help change
Liberia, Weah said, "Every time we win, we're like a different
country: Everybody's happy. Football can bring peace." This, of
course, would be a laughable statement in other corners of the
globe, but Weah is serious. He had T-shirts printed for both
teams declaring FOOTBALL UNITES, and when the players march onto
the field, both teams are wearing them and carrying a long banner
that reads LIBERIA-SIERRA LEONE PEACE.

Taylor walks out from under the stadium surrounded by security
men and wearing a powder-blue shirt. In an astonishing display of
brass, he shuffles down the line of Sierra Leone players, shaking
hands as a 23-piece brass band plays a plodding dirge. Then
Taylor walks the Liberia line, shaking hands with each player,
hugging Debbah and, briefly, Weah. Taylor walks off waving a
kerchief, and the crowd roars.

It is not a good game. Sierra Leone wants nothing more than a
draw, so it doesn't bother trying to score. The pressure begins
building on Liberia as the first half ends 0-0; the home fans
choke on their frustration. Finally, in the 65th minute, after a
flurry of blown chances by the Lone Star, Debbah centers the ball
to Zeze Roberts, who pops in a clean header for the day's only
score. The stadium seems both to expand and contract in an
explosion of hollering, dancing, drumming; relief pours in like a
summer flood. Liberia wins. Liberia takes control of Group B.
Hours later a phone rings in the Queens home of Clar Weah. "We're
going to make it to the World Cup!" her husband screams. "Just
four more games and we'll make it!"

The ride back downtown goes at a crawl. The traffic jam stretches
for miles, and for a long time no one carves a path for the Lone
Star. No one wants to. Men hold up children so the kids can get a
better view of the jammed bus. Inside, the players sit or stand,
sweating, leaning on one another, watching the madness outside. A
crowd 12 deep presses up against the side, slapping the windows.
Dusk is coming down when the bus passes the Nigerian embassy, the
tin-roof boxes that pass for housing, the cottage bearing the
sign ONE DAY, ONE DAY, GOD WILL PROVIDE.

The bus picks up speed going down Tubman Boulevard. One player
begins to sing.

We are the famous Lone Star team
We never fear no foes
We ne-ver fear no foe!
(Adona, Adona)
Adona is our mighty spirit
Adona is our mi-i-ighty spirit

Now all the players have joined in; now the bus is filled with
two dozen male voices perfectly in tune.

Play, Lone Star, play!
(Lone Star, play-oh!)
Play, Lone Star, play!
(Lone Star, play-oh!)
Play Lone Star, never fear
Never fear, nooooo foes!

The voices grow louder, thundering their way under one's skin.
The bus makes a left turn toward the house that used to be a
home, the one that was burned and rebuilt and is now a hotel
called the King's Lodge. Weah sings too, his eyes shining, his
voice raspy and fine. The bus makes a right turn and drives along
the wall where the men once lined up single-file. To keep the
Lone Star together, Weah decided last year to house the players
in his former home. He began to think of the team as a blessing,
as a way to cleanse the house of all the evil that had come
before.

Another massive crowd closes in as the bus rolls through the
gate, all music and light. Night falls, but people keep coming,
braving the dark because nowhere else matters. Wonderful is
here.

B/W PHOTO: BACKGROUND PHOTO ON PREVIOUS SPREAD BY CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFPTWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTYTWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY ROYAL TREATMENT Weah is revered by his old neighbors in Gibraltar and by the schoolgirls whom he lectures on personal responsibility.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY UNIFYING FORCE Against Sierra Leone, Weah led the Liberian attack, and he had the Lone Star playing with a newfound cohesion.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY DUSTUPS Like these kids, Weah grew up playing in the streets of Monrovia, but back then soccer received more government subsidies.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY DIRT POOR The desperate straits of many Monrovians are reflected in a pickup soccer game in a garbage-strewn lot.COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK ROBERT/CORBIS-SYGMA CHILDREN'S CRUSADE Taylor has armed kids, such as this boy in '96, and has allegedly drugged them to make them better killers.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY ON A ROLL Weah (below left, standing) and his players fed off the adoring crowd as their bus moved through Monrovia.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY SAFE HAVEN At their house in New York City, the Weahs are a world away from Liberia's seemingly endless troubles.
He always returns because he believes that a man who burns the
bridge to his past is lost.
For this week, at least, Liberians can obsess about the Lone
Star and drink a bit and forget.
Liberians hate losing; a bad game guarantees the heaping of
threats on any available player.
"Boys are trouble," Weah tells the girls. "Boys make mothers and
don't want to see them."
"Every time we win, we're like a different country," Weah says.
"Everybody's happy."
"Whenever George goes home to Liberia," Clar says, "I'm afraid.
You just never know."
"Everything I have, I owe to the Liberian people," Weah declares.
"I give back what they gave me."