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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.”

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

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How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

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The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

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Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

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