After the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations hit the headlines for the wrong reasons this week, Oli Coates looks back fondly at arguably the continent’s finest player to ever grace Serie A…
He may be spending his time nowadays surrounded by squabbling politicians as the 25th President of Liberia, but it’s not all that long ago since George Weah did most of his talking on the football pitch. And what a voice he had. Even so, we may be risking another squabble in the comments as we ask: is George Weah is the greatest African to ever play in Serie A?
There have been some hugely talented players from Africa who’ve grace Italy’s top flight. Yet Weah was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, and continues to add to his legacy through his work back in his home country. The adoration he developed on the pitch has propelled him to Liberia’s highest public office, and there’s good reason Weah became so fiercely adored.
Arriving in Europe at Monaco in 1988 on the back of success in Liberia and Cameroon, Weah cost the Ligue 1 club just £12,000, with then-manager Arsene Wenger spotting his obvious potential. Monaco turned a vast profit when selling the forward to Paris Saint-Germain four years later, where Weah would win Ligue 1 in 1994, along with two more Coupes de France to add to the one he won in the principality, and a Coupe de la Ligue.
Serie A was the world’s strongest league at the time, and the glamour and status attached had most of football betting that it wouldn’t be long before a giant such as Milan came calling. Weah moved to San Siro in 1995, scoring 15 goals in 36 appearances in his debut campaign as the Rossoneri won the Scudetto. Milan would also win the league in 1999. Weah spent five successful years in Lombardy, where he scored a total of 58 goals in 147 games.
Weah’s entire club career yielded 193 goals in 478 appearances, an average of around a goal every 2.5 games. Internationally, he managed 18 goals in 75 matches for Liberia. While impressive overall in terms of his scoring stats, Weah’s all-round forward play and creativity brought so much more than simply a finishing touch to his team’s attacks.
This was the reason Weah became the first African to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1995. He remains the only player from the continent to win the award to this day, while the same goes for his Ballon d’Or success of the same year. Weah would finish second to Ronaldo in the 1996 FIFA voting, while he was also named African Footballer of the Year three times in 1989, 1994 and 1995, finishing as runner-up on four further occasions.
Taking a look through George Weah’s best Serie A goals, the Liberian shows an uncanny knack for finding the bottom corner. As with all of the best finishers, Weah had the ability to slow things down prior to pulling the trigger, rarely using any more power than he needed to put the ball past the goalkeeper. Although he was capable of scoring netbusters from both inside and outside the box, as well as headers and acrobatic efforts, the calm, measured approach to his one-on-one finishing is a truer measure of his goalscoring ability.
As well as dinking the ball past the ‘keeper, Weah was also adept at producing deft touches to get himself past opposition defenders. A player whose silky skills were somewhat ahead of his time, Weah combined his eye for goal, close control and calmness under pressure with raw pace and power.
All of these traits are clearly shown in his most famous goal, scored against Verona at San Siro on September 8, 1996. Serie A was regarded as the best defensive league in the world at the time, but Weah was able to control the ball from a corner kick inside his own box, before running the entire length of the pitch, riding challenges as he bore down on goal before slotting an unerring finish past the ‘keeper.
Weah was so good, that even the mere mention of his name was enough to send otherwise astute footballing men a little doolally. This was what happened to former Rangers, Liverpool, Galatasaray and Torino manager Graeme Souness, who famously wrote Weah’s name deeper into footballing folklore when signing Senegalese player Ali Dia as Southampton boss.
Souness believed Dia was Weah’s cousin on the back of a recommendation from the former FIFA World Player of the Year. The story goes that the Scot received a phone call from someone purporting to be Weah, telling him about his supposed cousin, who would become one of football’s most famous fraudsters after Souness brought him on as a substitute for the Saints in the Premier League.
Someone who actually is related to Weah and carving out a genuine career in the game is his son, Timothy Weah. A United States international with 18 caps under his belt at the age of just 21, Weah Jr was part of the Lille team that sensationally upset all the odds to beat the mighty PSG to the Ligue 1 title last season. After starting out at PSG himself, before a loan spell in the Scottish Premiership at Celtic, Weah has five goals in 56 appearances for Les Dogues, as he looks to follow in his father’s storied footsteps.
Weah Sr’s diplomatic skills could be put to use at AFCON 2021 after Wednesday’s farcical mess surrounding referee Janny Sikazwe, who twice blew up early for full time in the fixture between Mali and Tunisia. However, his footballing abilities are what most Serie A fans will remember him most fondly for, as a player who had the capacity to captivate, enthrall and excite – not to mention put the ball in the back of the net.
So is Weah the greatest African to have ever played in Serie A? For many people, including this writer, the answer is a resounding yes. Greatness is about more than mere footballing ability, but George Weah ticks every box.