From striker to statesman

By Jonathan White Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/19 23:26:23

President hopeful Weah heads players-turned-politicians

Former football star George Weah greets his supporters during a campaign rally in Monrovia, Liberia on October 8. Photo: VCG

Career politicians are comfortable with the political football but one breed of politician might be even more so - the ones who made a career kicking a ball about before entering into the political sphere. Former Ballon d'Or winner George Weah stands on the verge of becoming the president of ­Liberia. He is in a two-way runoff for the presidency with current Vice President Joseph Boakai that will take place next month after Weah failed to secure over 50 percent of the popular vote in the recent general election.

The Liberian would have a claim at being the most successful footballer-turned-politician by reaching the very top in both fields. World Player of the Year to world leader would be quite the accomplishment, but it has not been an overnight success. The former AC Milan and PSG man first entered politics in 2005 when he ran for president. In that election Weah was again the most popular candidate in the first round but did not have an outright majority and entered a runoff which he lost. Weah was also a vice presidential candidate in 2011 before being elected to the Liberian Senate in 2014 in a landslide.

If he can finally reach the office of the president then he would follow in the footsteps of a slightly less high-profile international footballer who went on to become a world leader: Kaj Leo Johannesen. The president of the Faroe Islands between 2008 and 2015, Johennensen also made four appearances for the national team and won the league title three times. It's fair to say the Faroese footballer was not in the same class as Weah on the pitch, but minor footballing success is no object to political power. Former Georgia international and two-time Champions League winner with AC Milan turned deputy PM of Georgia Kakha Kaladze is a very close second but it's fair to say that footballing failure is no object to political power. Take Olli Rehn, who played top-flight football in Finland as a youngster before becoming an MP, cabinet minister and several senior roles at the European Commission. More notable is the fact that the current Turkish president (and former PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan was only a semi-pro footballer, but a 112-cap record scorer has never been higher than an MP. Bizarrely, Erdogan performed Hakan Sukur's 1995 wedding as Mayor of Istanbul but then issued his arrest warrant as president in 2016. 

Magyar model

More often than not a player's talent far outweighs their political prowess. Gyula Grosics was the keeper for the Magnificent Magyars, as the Hungary team of the 1950s was known. Grosics was in goal for Olympic gold in 1952, the national team's famous victory over England in 1953 and the disappointment of losing to West Germany in the final of the 1954 World Cup. He played in two more World Cups for his country and in 1990, the year Hungary became a democracy, he unsuccessfully stood for parliament. Grosic's international teammate Jozsef Boszik, a man who won over 100 caps for his country, had more success; he was a member of the Hungarian parliament during the 1960s after retiring from football. He combined this with managing his former club, Budapest Honved, and a role on their board. The desire for football and politics in Hungary has not diminished. Viktor Orban is on his second stint as prime minister of the country - he has been in power since 2010 and also from 1998 to 2002. And once, in 2001, the then 37-year-old canceled a cabinet meeting because it clashed with training for his amateur side Felcsut. Orban has even appeared as a player in the game Football Manager.

Cult figures

Far less obscure footballers have dabbled with politics, albeit fleetingly. Colombia international Carlos Valderrama was a candidate in 2014 senate elections, fellow mid-1990s midfielder Marc Wilmots was elected to the senate in his native Belgium in 2003 before he stepped down to manage the national team. Maroune Chamakh was named as a candidate in French regional elections despite being ineligible, while Sol Campbell didn't make the shortlist for the Mayor of London. Elsewhere, Ukraine star striker Andriy Shevchenko failed to get elected in 2012, while Russia midfielder Andrey Arshavin stood for Russian regional elections in 2007 only to pull out before the ballots opened. Arsharvin's international teammate Roman Pavlyuchenko was elected to the city council of his hometown a year later.

A man who was much more successful in both terms of goals and politics than Pavlyuchenko was Oleg Blokhin. The striker holds the record for both caps and goals for the Soviet Union football team and also for Dynamo Kiev. Blokhin found the time during his post-football managerial career to be twice elected to Ukraine's parliament before taking Ukraine to World Cup 2006 and Euro 2012. Poland legend Grzegorz Lato's career echoes Blokhin's. The ­Poland winger was a gold medal winner in the 1972 Olympics and the top scorer at the 1974 World Cup. He also played in the 1978 and 1982 tournaments in a career that spanned a record century of caps for the national team. Lato then went on to a second life in football management before four years as a senator from 2001 to 2005 and a stint as the head of the Polish FA. 

Milan mainstay

Weah is perhaps most similar to another European giant of the time. Gianni Rivera lifted the 1968 European Championship trophy with Italy and was part of the team that were runners-up to Brazil in the World Cup final two years later. In the intervening year he won the Ballon d'Or. In his domestic career, which was almost all spent at AC Milan, he won three Serie A titles and the European Cup twice. Rivera was always political - he founded the Italian Footballer's Association in 1968 while still a player - and was vice president at Milan until Silvio Berlusconi took over the club. He entered politics when elected to the Italia parliament in 1987 and stayed there and then in the European Parliament until 2013 when he joined the Italian FA.

Brazilian striker Romario beat Weah to the World Player of the Year title in 1994 - Weah won it the following year - and also beat him into full-time politics. Romario entered the lower house of Brazil's congress in 2010 and then became a senator in 2014, with a record number of votes. Romario's World Cup-winning teammate Bebeto was a state legislator for Rio when Romario became a congressman, with the two going head-to-head on the issue of the 2014 World Cup. The pair followed in the footsteps of Zico, who was the country's first sports minister in 1990, and Pele, who took over the role in 1996. Even in players-turned-­politicians, the Brazilians are a class apart.


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