When Milan acquired Liberian forward George Weah from Paris Saint Germain in the summer of 1995, many commentators and pundits raised their eyebrows. The Rossoneri were a dominating force in Europe and could already boast strikers the like of Dejan Savicevic, Marco Simone, and – hear, hear – Roberto Baggio, who had just landed in Milanello and was of course supposed to be the real deal in Milan’s transfer market session.
On top of that, Milan still harbored a faint, dim hope of recovering long-term injured Marco Van Basten. The Swan of Utrecht would ultimately throw in the towel just before the season start, but that was after the Rossoneri had secured the services of Paris Saint Germain’s hitman.
Weah was already 29 and apparently past his athletic prime. He looked like an unnecessary luxury for President Silvio Berlusconi’s side. When he happened to play against his future teammates in a Champions League Semifinal in April 1995, the confrontation was merciless: Milan thrashed the French champions on a 3-0 aggregate, and George Weah didn’t touch the ball once.
Despite Weah being the top scorer of the competition with eight goals, doubts about him increased and the Italian press kept wondering what could be the use of this big boy coming from a country most of them had never even heard of.
They didn’t know anything.
“King George” would end up becoming an iconic player for the Milanese side, much more than Baggio himself, who never managed to click with any coach during his experience in red-and-black. George Weah scored 15 goals in his first season in Rossonero – more than anyone else – contributing to the Diavolo conquering the next Scudetto. In December, he was awarded the Ballon d’Or, the first non-European player to win the prize. Boom.
He went on to play four seasons with the Rossoneri, winning another Italian title in 1999, and quickly stealing Milan supporters’ hearts thanks to his great charisma and vibrant personality, on top of playing skills which were still the state of the footballing art. Weah had everything: Technique, power, speed, timing, and a larger-than-life presence.
Perhaps the biggest regret, both for him and for the middle-aged football fans, is that he never managed to walk the world stage and play in a World Cup. Still, he went so darn close to it. So darn close. They needed just one more point in the 2002 Qualifiers, Weah and the Liberians, to wrap one of the biggest upset in the history of African football, but they fell at the last hurdle and lost 1-2 to Ghana in the decisive match, thus bidding farewell to their dream.
If we were to summarize George Weah’s presence on the playing field, the most appropriate image would be a force of nature. There were days in which the Liberian striker was literally unstoppable and no episode conveys better this image that the goal he scored against Verona in the opening game of the 1996-97 season. It was a 90-meter long coast-to-coast, with Weah grabbing the ball into his own area by intercepting a corner kick shot by the Gialloblu and then galloping for the full length of the pitch to finish with a perfect right-foot shot.
A goal á la Maradona, one would say, remembering El Pibe de Oro’s famed netting against England at the World Cup 1986. Sure, scoring against an average Verona side from the mid-‘90s was an easier ballgame than dribbling half of the British national selection. Still, both goals earned their unique place in the history of football, perhaps because of how accurately represented the true playing essence of their authors.
Diego Maradona’s run was a masterful dance that put six England players behind him, while George Weah’s execution was a pure burst of speed and power. There was a moment, right after he passed the midfield line, when he seemed to have lost the ball as two Verona players tackled him simultaneously. Still, perhaps with a bit of luck, surely with much determination, he managed to hold it and finish for the best a few seconds later.
Weah’s masterpiece put the Rossoneri ahead at 3-1 after his friend Marco Simone’s brace had neutralized Antonio De Vitis’ opener for the Gialloblu. Before the end of the match, there was also time for Roberto Baggio to put the icicle on the cake and set the score at 4-1.
It looked like the dawn of another campionato easily dominated by the red-and-blacks, which had lifted the trophy four times in the previous five seasons. Coach Fabio Capello had just stepped down, replaced by El Maestro Oscar Washington Tabarez, but with such an attacking line and with a defense still featuring Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, the Rossoneri faithful didn’t seem to have anything to worry about. If only they knew.
The 1996-97 season ended up being one of the worst in the recent history of the Milanese side. Tabarez lasted only 11 games on Milan’s bench, and President Silvio Berlusconi hastily recalled no less than Arrigo Sacchi to save his club’s season. The Prophet of Fusignano, however, managed to do even worse, losing 1-2 to Rosenborg in his debut match to miss the Champions League knockout stages and ultimately “leading” the Rossoneri to a disappointing 8th place in the table.
The season is infamously remembered for some of the most dreadful performances ever staged by Milan, including a 1-6 home loss to Juventus. Even Weah himself somehow managed to show his dark side as he head-butted Porto’s defender Diego Costa in a Champions League game, earning a 6-game ban from the competition.
But all of this was far to come on that sunny Sunday afternoon of September, when King George astonished the world of calcio with a goal that still has a place of honor in the Italian top-flight hall of fame.
Today, George Weah sits on the presidential chair of his native Liberia, trying to rule – not without controversy – the country where he was born and which he contributed to making known in the world.
His son Timothy, now 20-year-old, plays in France for Lille and chose to represent the U.S.A. internationally. He has already collected eight caps for the U.S. soccer team, and perhaps one day he will manage to play in a world championship.
Indeed, it would be about time that we can see a Weah playing in the World Cup.
September 8, 1996 – Serie A 1996-97 Round 1
SCORERS: 25′ De Vitis (V), 49′ Simone (M), 66′ Simone (M), 86′ Weah (M), 90′ Baggio (M)
|MILAN (4-3-1-2): Rossi, Panucci, Galli, Costacurta, Maldini, Boban (90′ Ambrosini), Albertini, Desailly, Baggio, Weah, Simone (83′ Eranio) (Pagotto, Reiziger, Tassotti, Vierchowod, Locatelli) Coach: Tabarez|
|VERONA (5-3-2): Gregori, Bacci, Baroni, Caverzan, Fattori, Paganin, Colucci, Corini, Orlandini (74′ Maniero), Binotto (81′ Manetti), De Vitis (74′ Reinaldo) (Guardalben, Vanoli, Siviglia, Ficcadenti) Coach: Cagni|
REFEREE: Mr. Rodomonti from Teramo
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Maldini (M), Orlandini, Binotto, Colucci (V)