In 1995, the very first year that players born outside of Europe were eligible for the award, George Weah won the Ballon d’Or. After the glitzy award show in Paris, he would parade the 12 kg, spherical, dipped-in-gold trophy around then-battle weary Monrovia, and proudly so. To date, he remains the only African player to have won world football’s most prestigious individual trophy. Playing for Paris St. Germain at the time, with whom he’d finish as the UEFA Champions League top scorer, he won the award ahead of distinguished players like Jari Litmanen, Jurgen Klinsmann, Paolo Maldini, and Gianfranco Zola. He would later win the Serie A, (Italy’s premier football championship) twice with AC Milan and the FA Cup with Chelsea.
Weah’s homeland of Liberia, Africa’s oldest democracy, would erupt into civil war in 1989. This was a year after the then-Monaco coach, Arsene Wenger had taken a young Weah to showcase his skills in Europe. What a difference a year makes, twelve months later and he’d probably would have been caught up doing what he needed to survive. Because in a civil war, sport is the last thing on most people’s minds, unless you’re the Colombian government in the period between 1949-1954.
I read up on Weah yesterday, while on a break. A meme on twitter had joked how bad it would be if we were locked down in 2003 and all we had was the bestselling phone of that year, and of all time, the Nokia 1100. Instead of viral video forwards, we’d be concentrated on creating our own monophonic ringtones, (remember those?) and playing Snake. The stay indoors wouldn’t have been so bad though, Sean Paul was releasing hits after hits, 50 Cent had just released ‘In da club’ and the population globally was a billion humans less.
If the war had found Weah in Liberia, I think he most likely would have never played professional football, let alone set the international football scene alight. Think about Kenya, and how even in the presence of peace, dilapidated infrastructure and an uninterested government have killed many artistic and sporting dreams, throw in war and even the few that have made it are erased from history. In between reading up on Weah, I was listening to Kanye West and his rant about the Medici Family, and how the aristocratic family financed some of the artistes that brought about the Renaissance; Niccolo Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Leornado da Vinci, Galileo Galilei. That read about the European Renaissance led me read about what their African equivalents were up to at that time. At Mansa Musa’s University of Sankore mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers would gather to teach and learn from each other.
The works that they produced aren’t as highlighted, or as regarded as they should, and even for interested parties, information on their works is scanty and limited to a few dedicated sites. The works of Michelangelo (‘David’, ‘The Pieta’ and ‘The Creation Of Adam’), Da Vinci (‘Vitruvian Man’, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Mona Lisa’) and Machiavelli (‘The Prince’) are constantly reproduced and are a staple of politics, art, and popular culture. The contribution by their African peers to Architecture (Obelisks, Pyramids, The Sphinx, Timbuktu, Gedi), Navigation (building boats and astrology), Medicine (sterile equipment, broken bone setting, and advanced procedures like cesarean sections) are only known by people keen on researching on Africa’s contribution to civilization. It is sad that in public schools in Kenya, we learn about David Livingstone and not Mansa Musa and all the brilliant scholars, artists, athletes, and phenomenal Africans that preceded us. No wonder majority of us suffer from self-hate and low self-esteem.
Back to Weah. Imagine Arsene Wenger doesn’t take him to Europe, he joins the army/rebels and he wears bloodied khaki fatigues instead of a bright coloured polyester mesh, and learns about dismantling the opposition’s defence, only this time he uses a Kalashnikov and not his brains and feet. And now Africa doesn’t have a Balon d’Or, not because of a lack of a skilled footballer but because avoidable circumstances led to a dearth in talent
Sadly, this hypothetical situation is replicated across Africa. Brilliant sportspeople hamstrung by lack of facilities and structures that nurture talents, smart businesspeople curtailed by punitive taxes and a taxation regime that prizes cronyism and nepotism over merit and booksmart people who will never cure the niggling and consequential diseases because they are bound by the shackles of illiteracy.
Imagine what Wikipedia would look like if the $5 Billion that Mobutu stole went to pitches, art centres, studios and quality, affordable living, health and transport systems across the DRC. We’d have more than one heir to Franco and a Congo that is the literal and figurative heartbeat to Africa. Now juxtapose that scenario with Abacha in Nigeria, Kenyatta in Kenya, Mugabe in Harare and Nguema in Malabo. A google search wouldn’t bring up hungry kids in dirty, oversize clothes when you typed in ‘Africa’.
Sadly, until Africa, as a whole, and in individual capacities, learns to empower its citizens, we will have to have our narratives shaped by those that do. Weah is the current president of Liberia btw, and hopefully, the challenges he faced growing up turn him into a leader that wants the best for Liberia and not one who adds to the pain and suffering his people have endured over the decades.