George  Weah:  Milan’s Pioneering Liberian

The summer of 1995 was a big one in the red half of Milan. Having just conceded the Serie A title to Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus, changes were needed if the Rossoneri were to claim their fifteenth Scudetto going into the 1995-96 season and club president, Silvio Berlusconi, wasn’t long in getting the cheque book out.

Being able to call upon the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Christian Panucci and Filippo Galli, Fabio Capello’s side were more than defensively sound, so the Italian tactician and Berlusconi decided to show a statement of intent by signing Italian Footballs golden boy Roberto Baggio. The deal was made all the more satisfying given the fact they had lured Baggio away from Milan’s closest rivals and current champions Juventus. Along with Baggio came an electrifying Liberian striker who was setting French football alight both domestically and in Europe with PSG. That man was George Weah.

Many in the world of football expected Milan’s marquee signing Roberto Baggio to be making all the headlines in Italy. However the man nicknamed the divine ponytail struggled to make an impact during his first season with the Diavolo.  Instead, it was his fellow debutant George Weah that left tongues wagging.

At 6’2”, Weah was powerful, athletic and also supremely skilful. He had blistering pace and a devastating eye for goal. In an interview with Rio Ferdinand during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, former France and Arsenal icon Thierry Henry spoke of his admiration for Weah while growing up in the Monaco academy, claiming, “In the history of the game, I have never seen power and speed like George Weah”

During his pomp, Serie A’s best defences just couldn’t deal with the then African, European and World player of the year. The sight of Weah in full flight with the ball at his feet in that famous red and black jersey is one of the most iconic sights during Italian football’s heyday.  Despite only playing in Italy for five years in a career that lasted over 20, Weah will always be remembered for a moment of genius one sunny Sunday afternoon at the San Siro in 1996.

Hosting Hellas Verona, Milan led 2-1 while defending a corner. The corner was over-hit to the back post where Weah was performing his defensive duties. Nonchalantly controlling the ball with the outside of his boot in his own penalty area, the Liberian then took off six yards from goal. He ran and ran, hurdling desperate Verona tackles, even throwing in a little pirouette for good measure, before calmly slipping the ball past an on rushing Verona keeper. The goal sent shockwaves across the peninsula. It was the work of a master craftsman and one that encapsulated Weah’s imperious ability.

At Milan, Weah was arguably the world’s most revered striker. During his first season at the San Siro, the Liberian would pick up the Ballon D’Or and also the Fifa World Player of the year award, etching his name in the history books as the first African player to achieve such a feat. Berlusconi’s money had been well invested as Weah finished his debut season at the top of Milan’s scoring charts, helping his club secure the 1995-96 Scudetto. His impact in a red and black shirt ensured he would be remembered by Milanisti forever.

In his five years at the San Siro, Weah picked up two Scudetti, with the second coming under the guidance of coach Alberto Zaccheroni in 1998-99. Yet while Weah remained an iconic figure among the fans, his role under the Italian tactician changed. When Zaccheroni arrived at Milanello from Udinese during the summer of 1998, he ensured that his prized asset, German goal machine Oliver Bierhoff, followed him. Weah was no longer the main man in front of goal, and while the Liberian still chipped in with eight goals during Zaccheroni’s triumphant debut season, it was Bierhoff who took all the plaudits thanks to an impressive 20 goal haul.

The arrival of Bierhoff proved to be the beginning of the end for Weah. In the summer of 1999, Berlusconi was splashing the cash again, this time snapping up one of Europe’s hottest prospects in the form of Dynamo Kiev youngster Andriy Shevchenko. The arrival of Shevchenko would force Weah even further down the pecking order and inevitably spelled the end of Weah’s time in Italy.

But Weah still had a lot to offer the game and Milan weren’t keen on parting ways with him permanently. As such, Weah headed to England on a season long loan at Chelsea before making a permanent move to Manchester City just months later. But after 114 appearances and over 40 goals, Weah had left an indelible legacy on Italian football and contributed to making it one of the greatest leagues in world football.

The former PSG man brought his glittering career to an end in 2003. After his unsuccessful spell in England, he returned to France where he found his shooting boots once more with a successful season at Marseille before calling it a day after a brief spell in UAE with Al – Jazira. As well as winning African player of the in 1989, 1994 and 1995, Weah was voted African Player of the Century.

A true legend in Africa and his homeland of Liberia, Weah turned his hand to politics once he hung up those famous bright red Diadora boots. He is now senate of the Congress for Democratic Change Party, after unsuccessful bids to become his native land’s president in 2005 and vice-president in 2011.

Despite having chosen a completely different career path to football, George Weah carries the same passion, desire, belief, spirit and courage on the political stage as he did when he stepped onto the football pitch. It was these characteristics along with his talent that enabled him to dismantle some of Serie A’s and Europe’s strongest defences and provide moments of untramelled joy for the San Siro crowds. This is what makes George Weah one of the deadliest strikers in Calcio history.

By Giovanni Dougall: @giovannid86