Atlanta ’96 gold medallist Taribo West, a close friend of George Weah, was in Monrovia in January for the inauguration of the new Liberian President. He talks on Weah’s trailblazing feat, footballers in politics and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
•Memories: AC Milan’s George Weah (centre) sandwiched between Inter Milan defenders Taribo West (left) and Luigi Sartor during an Italian league match in Milan in 1997
Your friend and former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah, who was inaugurated in January as Liberian president, was in Abuja recently to seek support from President Muhammadu Buhari. How do you view this latest development in African football?
It’s one of the biggest things to happen in African politics if you realise that footballers have been largely marginalised in politics on the continent. I’m happy that George has broken the yoke. I was present at his inauguration and it was one of my happiest days to see a friend being named the president of his country. George is like a senior brother to me right from our time in France. I’m happy this is happening in my lifetime.
Do you think Weah has what it takes to play the African politics and move his people to another level?
Everyone must come together to support George. I think with time, he’s been able to develop himself. He not only went back to school, he was also a member of his country’s parliament. He held several offices. He’s been able to break into the political arena. He looked confident during his inauguration and he gave his fellow citizens hope. He was a leader and motivator of Africans when he was in Europe. I believe he can do it for his people back home.
Do you think the Weah story should serve as an example to Nigerian politicians to give footballers and sportspeople a chance to play a role in leadership?
I have been disappointed that sports people haven’t been given a chance because of the complex nature of our lives and politics. No doubt, George and Liberia have given us something to emulate. On his inauguration, I saw other nations coming with footballers on their entourage. For instance, the Senegalese president came to Monrovia with El-Hadj Diouf and he was proud that he came with a footballer, an icon who has a link with George. This is something to emulate in Nigeria. I saw Nigerian governors and businessmen there but they were there for their personal interests. There was no footballer included (on the entourage of) the Nigerian government. I was very disappointed that no footballer was part of the Nigerian delegation to Liberia. We should give everyone an opportunity to display their talents, ex-internationals inclusive. It’s not about politicising everything. It’s not fair when people, who can contribute meaningfully to governance, are sidelined.
There were global stars of the game that graced the inauguration ceremony. What was the atmosphere like?
George had his salvation in our church, Shelter in the Storm Miracle Church of All Nations. He was my second member. So, before I got to Liberia, he announced my coming and everybody was waiting to see me. They were waiting to see me carrying my old dreadlocks. But they didn’t see the dreadlocks! They were all happy. What I noticed during George’s inauguration is that the occasion was like a World Cup final. The whole world was represented. I saw my people from Italy, France, England; these are people I had not connected with for a very long time. I saw them that day. The Confederation of African Football was also happy to celebrate its own, who was being elected into the highest office of his country. My friends from Ghana were there. It was a reunion of Africans; a memorable occasion.
You were with Weah one-on-one before and after his inauguration. Did he tell you about his plans for Liberia?
We spoke for about an hour. He understands the challenges of his people. He’s soliciting support and trying to see how Liberians in the Diaspora can return to the country. He’s also working towards reviving the Liberian economy. I spoke with him on other areas and he was enthusiastic about charting a new course for his people. I was there for 13 days and I felt like not coming back.
As a big brother in Africa, are you clamouring for support for Weah from the Nigerian government?
In the last few weeks, I have been doing that. I spoke with George and some top people here on how they can help Liberia. George is definitely not a magician; so, he needs time and prayers to succeed. I’m happy he chose some experienced people into his cabinet; some were even from the previous government.
Weah believes Nigeria can win the World Cup in Russia. Do you agree?
I have critically analysed this Nigerian team; it is a young team who wants to make a name. They have a coach who has brought unity to the squad. They don’t have individual players who can make a difference but they fight together, work for one another. Such a team is very difficult to beat; it can surprise any team. I believe the World Cup would be a memorable one for Nigeria.
Do you think Nigerian footballers are ready for leadership positions in Nigeria?
Yes. Personally, I’m taking my time to learn and understudy the (political) climate. In the future, I believe I have something to give to the country through football. I nursed a political ambition several years back but my ministerial work has hindered me though. Politics gives you a platform to give back. For instance, George, as a footballer, was very helpful to his compatriots but today, politics has given him an even bigger platform to touch and transform the lives of his people. I think footballers should show significant interest in the area of politics and try to upgrade themselves.
What do you think has reduced sportspeople in Nigeria to mere spectators when it comes to politics?
We have a lot of footballers and coaches but they don’t have jobs. People are miserable; they haven’t been able to get their bearing. They need to empower sportsmen to be able to contribute meaningfully to society. If this is done, it will help the country a lot because they will bring in that fighting spirit of youthful people to bear in governance.
When Weah left football, he was visible in Liberian politics and went back to school to develop himself. But most times, you hardly hear of Nigerian sportspeople after retirement
(Cuts in) It’s the system. Nigeria has a complex system that doesn’t give room for you to contribute. It’s a system that’s unfriendly to the people, but in the last few years, it’s changing. I believe it’s a gradual process that would need patience and prayers. We have an issue especially amongst my generation of players. We had favour and mercy from God; we were able to make a mark and establish ourselves. But it made some of us relax. We felt ‘if they involve us, no problem, if they don’t, no problem’. But I think George’s case will not only inspire us but provoke us to change our mentality, so that we can begin to think differently.
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