Liberian football star-turned-president George Weah has won world headlines by conferring his country’s top honour on his former boss Arsene Wenger — but back home, not everyone is happy.
On Friday, Weah will award Arsene Wenger and Claude Le Roy, the two French coaches who gave his football career an early boost, with Liberia’s highest distinction.
But over the past week, debate in Liberian newspapers and radio shows has mounted over whether the award — usually reserved for individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to Liberia — is right.
“This Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption title, which the nation can bestow upon Liberian and non-Liberian alike, should not be about the personal connection between the President and Wenger or Le Roy,” Liberian newspaper Front Page Africa wrote in an editorial.
In the streets of Monrovia, some Liberians questioned the timing of such a ceremony, as the poor West African nation grapples with runaway inflation and a host of other economic woes.
“This honouring should not have been prioritised now,” said George Sackie, a 35-year-old teacher.
“Such titles should be given to someone who has served the nation in a distinguished manner,” said Daniel Neufville, an analyst at Ataryee community centre in Monrovia.
The government maintains, though, that both men helped Liberia through helping Weah.
“If Arsene Wenger and Le Roy had not exposed George Weah he would not have been the pride of an entire nation today,” said Andy Quamie, deputy minister of youths and sports.
“They helped Liberia in a distinguished way by helping someone who has become president of our nation… Consequently, Arsene Wenger and Claude Le Roy contributed highly to our nation’s pride.”
Wenger signed Weah, then aged 22 and playing in the backwater of Cameroonian football, when he was in charge of AS Monaco in 1988.
After four seasons in Monaco, Weah moved to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and then to AC Milan in 1995 — the year he became the only African player to win the coveted Ballon d’Or for the top player in a European club football.
He was feared as a quick, rangy and versatile forward who was deadly from long range and devastating in front of goal.
In an interview with AFP in 2014, Weah described Wenger as “My coach, my mentor, my father figure.” Weah’s wife Clar is an ardent Arsenal fan.
After Weah was elected president in January, he invited Wenger to his inauguration, but the Frenchman, in what turned out to be his last season as Arsenal manager, was unable to attend.
“Maybe if I’m suspended I’ll have time to go,” Wenger joked.
Weah’s odyssey “is an unbelievable story,” Wenger added. “But it’s down to the fact that one thing that was common in George’s attitude is being strong mentally, absolutely unbelievably convinced that he has a mission.”
Le Roy met the young Weah while managing Cameroon’s national side.
“He had signed to Tonnerre Yaounde and came to Cameroon national squad training even though he was a Liberian. I was dazzled by his talent and called Arsene,” Le Roy, who is currently coaching Togo’s national team, told AFP.
Among other Liberians — including many young people who help propel the soccer legend to the presidency in January’s elections — the event is a source of pride and excitement, placing the impoverished country on the world map.
Hundreds gathered in the capital Monrovia on Wednesday, hours before the Frenchmen’s expected arrival.
“For me the president is right to give such honour to the man who made him to be the only African to handle the world’s best title,” Patrick Harris, 23, told AFP.
“This is a great day for us. Since I was born I have been a fan of Arsenal. To hear that our president is honouring Arsene Wenger who is the spiritual father of our club, I am delighted,” Thomas Gbukpa, chairman of the Arsenal Fans of Monrovia, told AFP.