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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.”

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.