Mention George Weah’s name to anyone of a certain vintage and it conjures up a quintessentially 90s image: An impossibly hirsute James Richardson, sitting next to an impossibly large pastry in an Italian café, reading headlines from an impossibly larger bright pink newspaper.
Weah was a mainstay of Channel 4’s Italian football extravaganza. Whether it was during Gazzetta, the Saturday magazine show with Richardson and Ken Wolstenhulme, or the live Sunday games which pushed Peter Brackley’s vocal chords to the limit, Weah’s name was never far from anyone’s lips as he became one of the dominant strikers of the decade.
Here are three majestic Milan moments from “King George”.
The game at the Olimpico is ambling towards a goalless draw that suits both sides. Men like Baresi, and Maldini – who kept their sheets cleaner than the quality control officer at Persil – cherished games like this. Games where they could destroy the merest hint of an arch-rival’s creativity, then retreat to the comfort of the dressing room to spark up a pack of Marlboro in celebration of a solid afternoon’s work. Respect the point, Ragazzi. We earned it.
Except nobody told Weah. A summer arrival for a princely sum from PSG, the Liberian international had been paired in attack with another new signing – and Italian football royalty – in the shape of Roberto Baggio from Juventus. And the new boy was keen to prove his worth.
At first there seems little danger. When Stefano Eranio dollops over a tired knee-height pass in Weah’s general direction, with a midfielder closing in, the Milan striker’s cruciate ligaments brace themselves for impact. But whilst others are waning, Weah’s is working at the extremes of the mind-muscle connection. He spins his opponent with two exquisite touches, before slicing through the two centre-backs with the sort of precision Hannibal Lecter reserves for major arteries.
He now finds himself running at full pelt straight at Luca Marchegiani. What’s most impressive here is the way Weah adjusts his stride pattern effortlessly to allow him to strike the ball early. The Lazio custodian has no chance.
Six touches. Five seconds. One glorious golazo to add to a growing collection that would eventually see Milan claim the Serie A title.
There comes a time in every great artist’s life when, bored by the monotony of their own magnificence, they push themselves out of their comfort zone. The results are invariably mixed. Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle’s ill-fated turn as pop stars with Diamond Lights is probably best forgotten, whereas Jermaine Jenas’ successful reinvention from energetic midfielder to a microphone-for-hire has been the success story of recent times.
For George Weah, his moment of artistic experimentation came on a February afternoon in 1997. Up to this point, the Liberian had made a name for himself in Italian football as a man who dribbled with the enthusiastic zeal of a greyhound pursuing a Ginsters pasty.
And as the Milan number 9 heads straight towards the retreating Samp defence, there is no reason to expect any different. The blucherchiati centre backs set themselves for another high-speed slalom courtesy of Serie A’s hottest striker.
We’re often told that defenders hate players running at them. There’s obviously nuance to that sweeping generalisation. If Andrea Silenzi’s got the ball and ambling in your general direction, you can stick a brew on and pop back later. This may take a while.
George Weah running at you with the ball at his feet is like seeing the Terminator striding up your driveway. You know you’ve got a serious problem.
The Samp defence are stuck in purgatory. Weah has dropped deep into space, picked up the pass from midfield and stolen a march on his markers. Do they press or do they hold the line? Sensing the split-second hesitation from his opponents, the Milan marksman unleashes his hitherto secret weapon on Italian soil: the Thunderbastard. He hammers the ball with sort of unbridled fury that made Tony Yeboah a household name.
It’s a sensational strike that smears past the unsuspecting Sampdoria keeper, whose reactions are barely in the same postcode as the ball speeding beyond him.
It’s the goal that made Weah a legend.
Verona’s fans arrived at the San Siro for their first game back in Serie A after a successful promotion from Serie B. The first day of any new season is one filled with hope. No matter your club colour or crest, for those moments before kick-off you can dream freely of what lies ahead. And for Verona, a team who had won Serie A a decade prior only to implode financially and tumble to the second tier, the dream was alive again. They took an early lead and led the reigning champions. At half-time they retreated to the dressing room with the scoreline intact. If they could hold firm for forty-five minutes, they could get a result that would send shockwaves through Serie A. All they needed was a little bit of luck.
A quickfire double from Marco Simone had put Milan in the ascendancy. But Verona, plucky Verona, refused to back down. In the 86th minute they forced a corner and their fans crossed their fingers praying for good fortune. Get it in the mixer. Get your bonce on it. Bellissimo.
That’s the thing about Lady Luck. Sometimes she smiles on you. Or in Verona’s case, sometimes she boots you square in the knackers.
Two things happened next that defy convention. Firstly, the overhit set piece landed at the feet of George Weah a few yards from his own goal line. The Liberian had endured an absolute stinker of a game, in truth. His first touch had been like a harpoon; he’d spent the afternoon barely on speaking terms with the ball. In this scenario you’d fully expect Weah to boot the ball up the pitch and live to fight another day. Instead, he gets his head down and charges forward – which is where the rules of the cosmos were broken for the second time in quick succession.
Weah sets off on the sort of lung-busting, long distance sprint that would have Forrest Gump reaching for his Fitbit. He’s travelled thirty yards in the blink of an eye, before he’s ambushed by the Verona midfield.
A turn, a twist and a pirouette – which sounds like the training plan for Torvill & Dean – leaves three midfielders on ice. He then slides the ball effortlessly past the onrushing centre-back before dispatching a cool finish into the bottom corner.
It’s an extraordinary goal by an extraordinary player, the like of which we’d not seen before. He could hold up the ball with his back to goal, he could turn and hit the ball from distance, or he could bemuse you with his balletic feet.
King George. Your reign was truly glorious.
Written by Sid Lambert