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Sporting heroes, political dreams

On Tuesday 7 November, the people of Liberia will go to the polls to elect their new president. Following last month’s first round of voting, two candidates will contest a run-off to decide who takes office early next year. One is Joseph Boakai, a political veteran who has served as vice-president for the past decade.

But the favourite is George Weah, once a star of European club football and perhaps the most gifted player to emerge from the African continent. For those who remember Weah as a mid-nineties goal-scoring phenomenon, it might all seem a little odd.

KING GEORGE TACKLES POLITICS

This is not Weah’s first bid for the presidency of Liberia, a small nation on Africa’s west coast that was blighted by civil war for much of the nineties. In 2005, shortly after his playing career ended, Weah announced that he would contest his country’s first election since the conflict ceased in 2003.

Liberians love Weah, little surprise for a football-mad nation that has generally produced little in the way of international exports. While war raged at home, "King George" was fast becoming a star with Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, and most memorably AC Milan.

George Weah and Oliver Bierhoff

While representing the Rossoneri Weah was awarded the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year (he remains the only African-born player to win either). He thus became his people’s representative to the world and remains by far its most famous son.

Despite his iconic status, Weah’s first presidential bid was unsuccessful. His critics warned that he lacked political experience and formal education (Weah responded that Liberia’s educated rulers had done the country little good). It did not help that his opponent, Harvard graduate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was also a veteran of domestic and international politics; Weah’s experience was at the San Siro and Parc des Princes.

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He lost to Sirleaf in the second round of voting, but his political aspirations continued. Weah undertook a degree in business administration at DeVry University in Miami, presumably to silence those who had questioned his education. He did not seek the presidency in 2011, instead acting as running mate to Winston Tubman, who lost heavily to the popular Sirleaf.

In 2014 Weah was elected to the Liberian Senate and two years later declared his intent to run for president once again, with Sirleaf unable to stand for a third term. Last month he took the first round by 150,000 votes and is the favourite to win outright on Tuesday.

THE MAYORS OF KIEV AND TIBLISI

Three-time Ballon d’Or winner Michel Platini may have run UEFA for eight years, but Weah would be the award’s first recipient to be elected president of an entire nation.

He is by no means alone in swapping sport for domestic politics, however. In fact, another AC Milan veteran, Georgian defender Kakha Kaladze, was recently elected mayor of Tbilisi. The long-time national team captain had been a member of his country’s parliament since 2012, resigning in July to contest the mayoral election.

A.C. Milan's Georgian defender Kakha Kal

Kaladze joined Milan in 2001, a year after Weah departed for a brief spell in the Premier League. Whereas the Liberian was a headline-grabbing striker, Kaladze did his job quietly at the back.

But the two men share some similarities. Just as Weah was a towering figure at home, Kaladze was a star of Georgian football for many years, captaining the side for 50 of his 84 national caps. He was Georgian player of the year five times and twice won the Champions League with Milan. His profile at home was such that a stamp bearing his image was released in 2003.

Kaladze is new to his job. A few hundred miles away in Ukraine, however, the mayor of Kiev is rather more settled in the role. Vitali Klitschko took office in 2014 and is perhaps the most famous sporting politician active today. Again, we are dealing with someone whose status was that of a national icon (and another man whose face adorned a stamp in his homeland).

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Vitali and his brother Wladimir were supporters of Viktor Yushchenko during the contentious 2004 Ukrainian presidential election and the subsequent Orange Revolution. Vitali was appointed as an advisor to Yushchenko in 2005 and put his boxing career on hold as his political involvement increased.

That year he also sought to become mayor of the capital, Kiev, finishing second with 26 percent of the vote. Over the following years he took on a number of political appointments while also resuming his boxing career between 2008 and 2012.

Klitschko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 2012 and stepped away from boxing for good. He considered running for president in 2014, but instead contested the mayoral election in Kiev. He won with almost 57 percent of the vote and is plainly building towards a future bid for the presidency.

PACQUIAO THE POLITICIAN

Unlike Klitschko, Manny Pacquiao has struggled to leave the fight game behind and throw his full weight behind politics.

Pacquiao did not embark on a political career when his career in the ring began to wane; at the age of 28 and still at the peak of his powers, he announced that he would run for a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives, the country’s secondary political chamber.

Nicknamed the People's Champ and considered a national treasure, he was the country’s most famous export and an icon at home.

Manny Pacquiao v Jeff Horn

His wealth and popularity gave him a direct route into politics, though his openly right-wing Christian beliefs have dramatically altered perceptions of Pacquiao outside his homeland.

In his first shot at politics he was defeated heavily by the incumbent, Darlene Antonino-Custodio, who remarked afterwards: "More than anything, I think, people weren't prepared to lose him as their boxing icon."

But the subsequent decade has shown that Pacquiao does not want to leave boxing behind. Ahead of the next election cycle in 2010 he formed his own party, drawing upon his boxing success by naming it the People's Champ Movement. Though he remains chairman to this day Pacquiao ran for election with the Nacionalista Party (and has since switched allegiance multiple times). He won a landslide victory, and was re-elected three years later unopposed.

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Pacquiao combined this with his on-going career in the ring. In 2012 he lost back-to-back bouts, first against Timothy Bradley and then against Juan Manuel Marquez, snapping a seven-year undefeated streak. He regained some momentum thereafter only to lose to Floyd Mayweather in their insipid 2015 super-fight.

Another meeting with Bradley was scheduled for April 2016, one month ahead of Pacquiao’s run for the Philippine Senate. He said the Bradley fight would be his last; few believed him.

It has all become quite ugly since. Major controversy engulfed Pacquiao after he described gay people as “worse than animals” in an interview with a Philippine TV station. Initially he refused to back down, though an apology did eventually follow. Nevertheless, Nike ended their long association with the fighter.

Pacquiao beat Bradley and in May 2016 was elected to the Philippine Senate, the country’s main political chamber. Despite being in a senior office he has continued to take fights, most recently losing to the little-known Australian Jeff Horn.

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SEARCHING FOR A PATTERN

All are different people with contrasting beliefs, but there are clear parallels between these athletes-turned-politicians.

All were hugely successful in their respective sports. They were not merely ‘very good’; they broke new ground and achieved the highest honours available. What’s more, they remained successful over a long period of time.

It is also fair to say that they come from nations that have suffered internal instability, particularly Weah and Klitschko. Their countrymen face greater challenges and inequality, so there is perhaps more drive to enter politics and make a direct impact.

They were all national icons, too. Weah is by some distance the greatest footballer ever to come out of Liberia and has few rivals on the entire African continent. Kaladze is the only Georgian to win the Champions League. Klitschko and his brother became titans of Ukrainian sport. And Pacquiao was close to a national religion in his homeland, capable of emptying Filipino streets on fight nights.

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The platform afforded by this level of fame can mitigate the drawback of having no political background (see also Donald Trump as an example of this). When Weah announced his presidency in 2005, no one needed to be told who he was. Perhaps they needed some explanation as to why an ex-footballer was the man to lead the country away from its war-torn past, but they would have at least recognised his face.

The same applies to Klitschko, Pacquiao and Kaladze. In many respects it provides a huge headstart: you enter the political arena with a positive reputation, having given your nation years’ worth of happy sporting memories. That is the kind of positive perception that money can’t buy.

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THE REALITY OF POLITICS

Of course, that goodwill only stretches so far. Once they are elected, former sports stars are generally held to the same standards as any other politician. It doesn’t matter how many goals you’ve scored or opponents you’ve dispatched to the canvas, you’re still going to feel the heat if spending on public services drops.

Frankly, that’s pretty boring – but then the day-to-day of politics generally is. This poses a problem in itself. Athletes are used to being heroes, particularly boxers and star strikers. They deal in moments of glory: a last-minute winner, a stunning knockout.

While there are headline moments in politics, they tend to be negative. Most of it is fairly tedious work that pays off slowly over the long-term, rather than in one instant of magic.

IAAF Congress Opening Ceremony -2015 IAAF World Championships

Pacquiao has struggled more than most in this regard, missing Senate sessions to focus on training and delivering speeches that are low on substance but high on fight-talk and machismo. His interest in the nitty-gritty seems limited and he has fallen back on high-impact, polarising statements.

It has surely cost him fans. In fact, all of those mentioned will have lost admirers because of their new careers. Whereas elite sportsmen are a blank canvas on which we project our own hopes and dreams, politicians are the first to be blamed for what is wrong with our lives. They are divisive and rarely trusted, receiving little praise even when they do good.

Should he triumph on Tuesday, George Weah is likely to learn that in politics you won’t always be liked, let alone loved.

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