During Liberia's 14-year civil war, Victor Fayiah fought off and on for the government. He spent days on the front lines, battling rebel advances. Only one thing, he said, could make him stop: George Weah, the Liberian soccer sensation.
"When we got the news George Weah was playing, we decided to abandon the fight for that day," Fayiah said. He and his comrades in arms would watch Weah on TV, playing in Europe. "As soon as he finished, we went back to the front."
Now that the war has ended, Fayiah and thousands of other ex-combatants have become an army of disaffected, unemployed young men, struggling to find a niche in Liberia's devastated economy.
And Weah, 38, a millionaire now retired from sports, has become a political champion to many poor young Liberians. In a field of 22 presidential candidates, including many educated professionals, for the country's Oct. 11 elections, Weah -- who never completed high school -- is considered one of the front-runners.
Fayiah and many other former soldiers spend their days at the campaign headquarters of Weah's party, the Congress for Democratic Change. They say the man they call King George, who once awed them as a star forward for a half-dozen European teams, has captured their hearts -- and votes -- with his call for national unity, social justice and postwar economic rebuilding.
The civil war, which began in 1989 when Charles Taylor invaded from Ivory Coast with a rebel group, destroyed the country's infrastructure. Most of the middle class fled. Taylor was elected president in 1997 but soon faced an uprising by insurgent groups. The war, which ended in 2003 with a truce that sent Taylor into exile, is estimated to have cost more than 200,000 lives.
During the fighting, Weah became famous for making generous gestures. He once reportedly withdrew $20,000 from a bank and stood on his doorstep, giving away money. He also played an active role in the disarmament process, encouraging fighters to lay down their weapons.
His critics, including many of the other candidates, criticize his limited political experience and education.
"He's popular and has the resources, but he lacks education," said James Kiazolu, publisher of the Liberian Express newspaper. "As much as we want to identify with natives, he lacks credentials."
But Weah's supporters say formal learning is less important than other qualities.
"You don't have to reach a high grade level to be an educated person," said Newlay Gedeo, 47, one of the few older people at Weah's headquarters, a sandy lot with a sound stage and a ratty soccer field. Liberia's youth "control the factors that may lead to war and peace," he said, adding that Weah's influence on them could be crucial.
For his part, Weah said he had gained political experience as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador between 1997 and 2005. He stepped down from the post to become active in national politics.
"You know how many presidents I've sat with in the world?" Weah, who has the solid build of an athlete, demanded, raising his voice during an interview at his house. He also joked easily and spoke in informal Liberian English, yet his demeanor grew serious when he spoke of public issues.
"An educated man is one that is willing to develop people. Ask the PhDs how many schools have they built," Weah said, referring to some of his rival candidates.
Weah's main challenger, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has all the formal credentials he lacks: She graduated from Harvard and is an economist who has worked at the World Bank. She ran for president in 1997 and came in second. Some critics have claimed she helped finance Taylor's rebel army, but she has vehemently denied the charges.
Her running mate, Joseph Boakai, said the large Liberian diaspora in the United States would return if the country were stable and the government trustworthy. "People are afraid to come back because they feel insecure," he said. "Leadership is a very important component of nation-building in Africa."
Another candidate, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, said he was eager to reinvigorate Liberia's relations with the United States, which many here consider their country's big brother. Tipoteh, who earned his doctorate in economics at the University of Nebraska, visited Washington in February and met with numerous officials. He said their chief concern was official corruption.
"The feeling we got from them is very loud and clear: The corruption . . . exhibited by the executive branch of government is overbearing," he said. Tipoteh said the crucial antidote is civil society organizations.
"Look at those forces that work for democracy and empower them further," he said. "The problem in Liberia has never been lack of money, just a lack of leadership committed to good governance."
Monrovia, the capital, hums with the sounds of generators that supply power the government cannot provide, and the streets have potholes as deep as bathtubs. In a country with 80 percent illiteracy, teachers are irregularly paid their monthly salaries of $20. And with unemployment hovering at 85 percent, few job opportunities exist for tens of thousands of jobless ex-fighters.
"The educational and health infrastructure of the country has been badly hit by the war," said Dr. Thomas Jaye, a Liberian research fellow at Britain's Birmingham University, in an e-mail. "There are thousands of children roaming the country without anything tangible to do. This is certainly a recipe for disaster."
Although many of Weah's supporters are ex-fighters from both sides of the civil war, Weah said he views them first as citizens of the country.
"It's the generals who directed them who should be castigated," he said.
While there is no overt ethnic tension in the country, Weah's supporters said they are fed up with the domination of Liberian politics by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847 and have dominated politics ever since.
Sylvester Panten, 27, a Weah supporter wearing a shirt with his hero's face on it, said that during the war rebels torched his parents' house, and he sold rice on the street to make ends meet.
The Liberian elite, he said, have done little for the poor. But "when we were . . . eating leaves," he said, "George Weah went to the U.N. and told them our people are dying." Still, not everyone agrees that Weah's concern for his country's suffering is enough to make him a good president.
"We want a leader the international community can trust," said David Kollie, 42, a security guard who supports Johnson Sirleaf. "Weah's got money, but we are not looking for money. We've cried for the last 15 years. This is the first and last chance for Liberia."