File picture: Reuters/John Sibley – Soccer Football – United States Training – Wembley Stadium, London, Britain – November 14, 2018 Timothy Weah of the U.S. during training.
By Glenn C. Altschuler
On Tuesday, millions of Americans rejoiced as the United States advanced to the knockout rounds of the World Cup, defeating Iran by a single first-half goal – only its second of the tournament. The first goal, scored against Wales in a 1-1 draw, came off the boot of 22-year-old New Yorker Tim Weah, the son of George Weah, a legend named the best player in the world in 1995.
The elder Weah was a global superstar, winning league championships in both France and Italy, collecting a veritable museum of individual awards. He split his time during offseasons between his native Liberia and the United States, where he met his Jamaican-born, New Yorker wife, Clar, Tim’s mother. But George Weah is not just a legendary athlete, an icon of African soccer placed ahead of names like Drogba, Touré, Mané and Salah. He’s also the leader of a nation. In 2017, George Weah was elected the 25th president of the Republic of Liberia.
But why is the son of the president of Liberia playing for the United States in the World Cup?
The answer speaks not only to the idiosyncrasies of global soccer but of the history binding two nations together across the Atlantic, one a literal creation of the other. The United States and Liberia, the nations of Tim and George Weah, are tied by the same scars of the transatlantic slave trade, violent colonialism, deadly civil wars and political systems with shared roots. Liberia itself was born of a uniquely American idea of liberty gained through republican governance in combination with two American systems of racism: slavery and settler colonialism. By understanding this history, Americans can better understand themselves and the world their nation helped create – for better and for worse.
Liberia’s founders were Black Americans, most born free in the border states, who began immigrating to West Africa in 1822, fleeing slavery and social and legal restrictions rooted in white supremacy. For some, immigrating to the Liberian colony was a condition of their emancipation, particularly for those from the Deep South. For others, it was a chosen act of social and legal liberation, access into a political and commercial class almost wholly denied them in the United States.
They were refugees, migrants and asylum seekers escaping one of history’s most violent systems of oppression. Yet they were also invaders and colonizers. Nearly all who expatriated brought with them to Liberia the American values upon which they were raised, like Christianity, capitalism and the violent belief that those values gave them the right to conquer and convert the Indigenous people they encountered at will. This included the Dey, Vey, Kru, Bassa and Kpelle, to name a few.
The colony grew on those terms, welcoming more than 10,000 additional Black American migrants by the end of the 1840s and serving as the U.S. Navy’s modest anti-slave trading outpost and an export hub for camwood, ivory and other West African goods. In July 1847, under threat from encroaching British imperialists to the north and French imperialists to the south, the expatriated American settlers who had by then firmly established political and economic power in the area issued a declaration of independence, framed around that of the United States. The Republic of Liberia, the first independent African republic, was born.
The first 10 presidents of Liberia were all Americans, freeborn natives of Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina and Kentucky. And they never forgot it, creating in Liberia a political, social and cultural identity built first upon their American births and later their American blood. Indeed, they inherited the American political and cultural traditions that would go on to define Liberia’s history and its greatest challenges for a century and a half. These tensions were informed by the legacies of American-inspired settler colonialism, including the repression of “Native” populations and the forced institution of cultural norms that mirrored the standards of 19th-century American values – including Protestant Christianity, formal “settler” English and aristocratic dress and manners.
Many decades later, the tensions borne of this settler colonial hierarchy boiled over in 1980 in the form of a violent and unrelenting civil war that would last for nearly 26 years. By the time George Weah retired from thrilling global soccer audiences in 2003, he joined the community formed by a reverse diaspora of thousands of Liberians who had recently migrated to the United States. But Weah, along with many others displaced by the violence, remained deeply tied to Liberia, and he soon returned and launched a series of humanitarian efforts and political campaigns. Drawing on his sporting popularity, humanitarian work and a shrewd ability to form political alliances, Weah successfully ran for president in 2017, defeating a field of 20 candidates including the incumbent vice president.
Meanwhile, his son Tim trained in his native New York and Florida, becoming one of the most exciting young prospects in American soccer. In 2017, the same year as the father’s election to the presidency, the son became the first American to sign with the storied French club Paris Saint-Germain, where his father had played two decades prior. In France, an American and a Liberian dream of intergenerational soccer success was fulfilled.
And the dream hasn’t been lost on Weah at this World Cup. In an Instagram post after the victory over Wales, Tim described his match-sealing goal as “A dream come true” and dedicated it to several things: “This was for my teammates,” he wrote, in all caps, interspersed with emoji of stars and flags. “This was for USA. This was for Liberia. This was for Jamaica!” His own place of birth, his father’s and his mother’s.
He again played well against England last Friday, in a 0-0 draw that felt like a victory for the Americans, and he was implacable against Iran on Tuesday, appearing to double the Americans’ lead, only to be called offside by a matter of inches at the stroke of halftime. In all three matches, he proved the most clever attacking player for the United States, similar in style to the imaginative forward his father was for both club and country, but never in a World Cup. Liberia failed to qualify for every World Cup since first taking part in the qualification process in 1982.
In Weah’s own words, Liberians now join Americans in celebrating a Weah in the World Cup – all draped in red, white and blue, the same colors, the same stars and stripes that represent the two nations, as Liberia’s flag nearly mirrors that of the United States. In 1847, seven American-born Liberian women designed their new republic’s flag – a single star standing in a field of blue accompanied by 11 red and white horizontal stripes representing the eleven signers of the Liberian Declaration of Independence.
Comparing the histories of American and Liberian independence, and the histories of the nations themselves, is revealing. The United States separated from Britain through a long and difficult war and its leaders were branded as rebellious traitors and tradition-shredding radicals doomed to self-immolation. When Liberia declared its independence in 1847, both the newly independent nation and the United States celebrated the extension of American republican values across the Atlantic. The United States was formed as a rejection of the British model of government, while Liberia’s independence was seen as fulfilling American values and American governance – for better and for worse.
Neither experiment was or has been entirely successful, nor complete. And when Tim Weah takes the field for the United States on Saturday against the Netherlands, he will once again become the talisman of an entwined history, a link between the American past and the Liberian present. Both nations will watch, cheer and deepen connections centuries in the making.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University. He is the author of co-author of 12 books, including (with Isaac Kramnick) “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.” David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College and the former dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.
This article was first published in The Washington Post.