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George Weah: Slum, to soccer stardom, and now president

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George Weah’s soccer talent took him from a slum surrounded by swamps in Liberia to superstardom in Paris, Milan and London, becoming the first and still only African to win FIFA’s world player of the year award.

That’s only half the story.

Raised in a poor neighborhood built on a mangrove swamp on the neglected outskirts of the Liberian port capital Monrovia, Weah was elected president of his country last week. His victory over the country’s incumbent vice president, a business graduate and former consultant to the World Bank, was a lesson in how sports fame can help propel figures with humble beginnings to positions of great importance.

Weah was not the first sportsman to test his popularity in the political arena. Boxer Manny Pacquiao is a senator in the Philippines, former Olympic champion runner and current IAAF president Sebastian Coe was a member of parliament in Britain, and ex-cricketer Imran Khan leads an opposition party in Pakistan. There have been others.

But Weah, easily Liberia’s most famous sportsman, has reached the highest office in his land. His challenge is big, too.

The 51-year-old former striker, who made his name with Italian giant AC Milan in the 1990s, must lead a country that still sits in the shadow of civil war. Weah has the brutal warlord and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor as one of his recent predecessors as president of Liberia. Just as Liberia, a nation on the coast of West Africa founded by freed slaves from America, appeared to be emerging from violence, it was rocked by the Ebola crisis in 2014-15.

And there’s the grinding poverty. Poverty that Weah knows firsthand from his early years in Monrovia’s Clara Town slum.

Helped by his familiarity with those hardships, Weah won the second round of voting in the presidential election by a large margin as young Liberians, especially, put their trust in a former soccer player with little experience in politics, and who only achieved his high school diploma when he was in his 40s.

Some of them might even be too young to remember Weah during his footballing heyday, but very few of them aren’t aware of his achievements. A league title with France’s Paris Saint-Germain in 1994, the top scorer in the 1994-95 Champions League, two league titles with AC Milan and, his greatest moment, the world player of the year and Ballon d’Or winner in 1995.

Maybe more importantly for poor Liberians in the same situation as Weah was: Soccer made him rich and famous.

The name Weah of Liberia stands out on that list of players who have been voted the world’s best, the only one from his continent alongside greats of the game from Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Strong, fast and with skill to match his physical prowess, he scored wondrous goals.

One of his best was this dizzying display of pace and skill for Milan against Verona. Two of Weah’s sons also became professional footballers, with Timothy Weah starring for the United States at last year’s under-17 World Cup. George Weah Jr., now 30, was also a youth international for the U.S.

An African in the big leagues in Europe is not a novelty now. But in the late 1980s, when Weah senior was playing his way out of the slum, it was rare. And even rarer that he should come from Liberia, a country that still struggles to put a national team together, and not Africa’s more fertile football fields in Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal or Ivory Coast.

Weah played in France, Italy and for Chelsea and Manchester City in the English Premier League, and was Africa’s first superstar. He was named African Player of the Century in 1996.

He never appeared at the World Cup – his Liberian teammates weren’t good enough to help him get there – but Weah said in an interview in 2015 for FIFA that his own success was always dedicated to Liberians.

“They celebrated with me and it put Liberia on the map,” Weah said.

Weah’s decision to personally bankroll the Liberia national team through a number of World Cup qualifying campaigns further ingratiated him to his compatriots. Last week, those compatriots elected Weah president, pinning their dreams on an ex-soccer star whose rise from the slum appears to give them as much hope of better things as the Harvard-educated, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who Weah will succeed as leader of his country.

Signs of that sentiment were evident in Weah’s early political career a few years ago when one of his young supporters proclaimed: “We want to put him in power because he cares for the youths and common people. And if he becomes president he will open a football academy for us.”

Video: Fekir’s brilliant free kick has Lyon leading PSG

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Paris-Saint Germain has established itself as one of Europe’s best sides, but their opponent on Sunday isn’t playing scared against Neymar and Co.

[ MORE: Spurs, Saints play to 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s ]

Lyon has taken a 1-0 lead inside the opening two minutes against the Parisians after a stunning free kick by Nabil Fekir caught PSG keeper Alphonse Aréola off his line.

The hosts could move all the way up to second place today with a victory over PSG, who holds the league lead in Ligue 1 with a nine-point advantage.

The 24-year-old Fekir has been a revelation for Lyon in his fifth season with the club, scoring his 19th goal in all competitions on Sunday.

That total has already surpassed his career-high from the 2014/15 season, when he eclipsed 15 goals.

USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie injured in Schalke draw

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Look away, U.S. Men’s National Team fans.

American and Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie was forced out of Sunday’s 1-1 Bundesliga draw against Hanover 96 after the 19-year-old collided with Felix Kraus.

McKennie, who entered the match in the 62nd minute for Leon Goretzka, managed to stay on the field for nearly 20 minutes before being substituted out.

To this point there has been no indication that the young USMNT player’s injury is serious.

More to follow…

Watford announces Gracia as Silva replacement

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Watford’s replacement for fired manager Marco Silva is indeed veteran Spanish boss Javi Gracia.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

The Hornets announced the 47-year-old’s hiring on Sunday, hours after firing Silva and blaming Everton’s pursuit of the manager for the club’s fall from European contender to the fringe of a relegation battle.

Watford is still four points clear of the drop following Southampton’s draw with Spurs on Sunday.

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Pochettino on sloppy Spurs draw, dismisses Malcom “rumor”

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Mauricio Pochettino knows St. Mary’s well, and the ex-Southampton boss has managed a rainy, sloppy match or three there in the past.

[ RECAP: Saints 1-1 Spurs ]

So he knows it’s possible to play well in those circumstances, leaving him feeling like Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw at Southampton on Sunday was a wasted opportunity against a struggling Saints side.

“It is temporary that Southampton are in the relegation zone, for sure they will push up the table,” Pochettino said. “It is two points we are going to miss at the end of the season because it is so tough between six or seven teams.”

[ MORE: Bertrand reacts to draw ]

So why couldn’t Spurs find their foothold? Well, aside from sickness keeping Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris out of the lineup, a bug that may’ve affected more on the team, Spurs just weren’t up to snuff.

“We struggled to play,” Pochettino said. “It was in possession, we made mistakes which allowed them to play. To win the game we should do better and play better. It wasn’t great.

Pochettino was also asked about Spurs’ reported pursuit of 20-year-old Bordeaux star Malcom, who has seven goals and five assists in Ligue 1 this season.

“That is a rumor and I don’t want to speak about it. I am happy with our squad. We are open to quality players but you know very well it is difficult in this transfer window.”