Washington, DC — Retired Liberian soccer star George Weah was honored this month at the 12th annual ESPY awards organized by the U.S. sports television network ESPN. Weah received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which acknowledges an athlete whose contributions transcend sport.
Actor Denzel Washington narrated Weah's story and presented him to the American audience.
Weah's professional career began in the late 1980s when he left Liberia at age 20. He won league championships with four different teams: Monaco, Paris St.-Germain, AC Milan and Chelsea. In 1995, he became the only player in history to have been named the European, African and FIFA World Player of the Year in the same year. He has won several soccer awards in Africa and Europe, including African Player of the Century in 1998. In 1999, he was inducted into the FIFA Hall of Fame.
Beyond the world of soccer, Weah has become a leading voice for children, serving as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations children's' agency Unicef since 1997. He began his association with Unicef in 1994, helping to publicize immunization campaigns in Liberia.
Weah's work for the organization has included support for HIV/Aids education programs and other projects in Ghana and Liberia and promotion of vocational training initiatives to demobilized child soldiers in war-ravaged countries.
In March 1998, in collaboration with the Italian Committee for Unicef, Weah launched a CD called "Lively Up Africa," involving the singer Frisbie Omo Isibor and eight other African football stars. The proceeds of "Lively Up Africa" went to children's programs in the countries of origin of the soccer players involved.
Much of Weah's work on health and social justice has been focused on his home country. Following the September 2003 ceasefire agreement in Liberia, Weah teamed up with Unicef to address the problem of reintegrating child combatants into their communities. He continued his work in April 2004 as a counselor to child soldiers, getting first-hand experience of Unicef's post-war rehabilitation of 15,000 Liberian children.
Weah maintained his efforts in spite of intimidation, as a result of his criticism of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Weah's home in Monrovia, the Liberia capital, was attacked, along with members of his extended family. But he continued to play a leadership role with the Liberian national soccer team, serving both as coach and sponsor from 2000-2002. Under his direction, Liberia fielded one of Africa's most competitive squads, winning nine out of ten international matches and defeating soccer powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana.
In 2002, with political pressures intensifying, he retired from international soccer and claimed that he would not return unless there is a change in government.
"I'm honored to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, one of the great awards given for humanitarian reasons," Weah said in a press release. "I do believe that together we can help the children of the world, including those in my home country of Liberia. I want to thank the whole ESPN family for bestowing this special honor upon me, the first I've won in America."