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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.”

Everton 1-0 Newcastle: Walcott blast has Toffees up to eighth

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Everton earned a 1-0 win against Newcastle on Monday behind Theo Walcott‘s second-half strike at Goodison Park.

The victory puts the Toffees into eighth place, leaping over Leicester City for the time being — as the Foxes have an extra game in hand.

[ MORE: Sweden coach says Ibra must reach out to have shot at World Cup ]

The former Arsenal man broke the deadlock six minutes into the second half when Walcott blasted the ball into the roof of the net following a lofted cross from Yannick Bolasie.

For Walcott, it’s his third goal since joining Everton in 2017/18 from the Gunners.

The visitors had their fair share of opportunities on the day, particularly through Ayoze Pérez, who was active all throughout the match.

Perez nearly broke the deadlock after the half hour mark when he tested goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in the 31st minute with a diving save in the bottom left corner.

Phil Jagielka came close four minutes later when his close-range attempt narrowly missed the top left corner after Michael Keane‘s flicked header off a corner kick.

The Spanish forward was at it again in the second stanza, and nearly found the back of the net when his header was saved in the center of the goal off of a cross from Kenedy.

Newcastle pushed hard for an equalizer in the dying moments, and even played up a man for a few minutes when Leighton Baines was tended to for a head injury, but the Magpies couldn’t even the score.

Sweden coach: Ibrahimovic must call in order to have chance at World Cup

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently raised the stakes when he said, “I am going to the World Cup, yes!” despite having previously declared his retirement from international soccer.

Although the LA Galaxy forward’s comments on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show may not be a clear indication of his involvement in this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Ibrahimovic certainly has an interest in representing his native Sweden once again.

[ MORE: FIFA subjects Morocco 2026 bid to scrutiny ]

Now, all the veteran goalscorer has to do is pick up the phone and call Sweden coach Janne Andersson, according to the manager.

“He can do it,” Andersson told kicker. “But If he changes his opinion, contacts me and tells me ‘yes, I want to be part of it,’ then we’ll sit down and discuss what that would mean, how we play these days and so on. But that’s all speculation.

“I don’t know [if he’d still fit into the team]. But I also don’t think about it. I take the things as they come if they come. If you want to be part of it, you must call me. Easy as that.”

The 36-year-old retired from the international game following Sweden’s involvement in EURO 2016, and Andersson says that he had no intention of calling up Ibrahimovic prior to the media-driven questions surrounding the striker.

Ibrahimovic ranks first all-time for his homeland in goals scored (62) since debuting for Sweden back in 2001.

“Not him, or anyone else who retired. But there’s this media noise,” he said. “I have no problem with those questions [about a possible return]. Not with what he says or what is written in media.”

Several of Sweden’s current players, including goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson recently stated that bringing Ibrahimovic back into the fold may disrupt the rhythm created within the squad — who handled Italy in their World Cup qualifying playoff to reach the final tournament in June.

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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