By Robson Sharuko
Harare - When George Weah blazed the trail and made history as the first African to be crowned Fifa World Player of the Year in 1995, Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya came a credible 12th in that global poll.
It remains the best faring by a Southern African footballer in the prestigious honour that celebrates the best player in the world every year.
Weah, just like Bwalya, never played at the World Cup but both men had distinguished club careers in Europe, and elsewhere, to lay their claim among some of the finest footballers to play the game.
Twenty-one years ago, their talents were duly rewarded by the world football governing body with Liberian star, Weah, who was then an influential player at Italian giants AC Milan, winning football’s top individual gong.
The Liberian superstar beat a host of some of the greatest footballers to grace the game – Paolo Maldini of Italy, Jurgen Klinsmann of Germany, Romario of Brazil, Roberto Baggio of Italy, Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria, Ivan Zamorano of Chile, Juninho of Brazil, Matthias Sammer of Germany, Michael Laudrup of Denmark and Gianfranco Zola of Italy – for the big award.
Weah also went on to become the only player to win the African, European and World Player of the Year titles in one season.
The following year, Weah came second in the poll behind Brazilian superstar Ronaldo who, at the tender age of 20, became the youngest player to win the award.
The Brazilian beat an illustrious company that included Alan Shearer of England, Sammer, Klinsmann, Nwanko Kanu of Nigeria, Maldini, Davor Suker of Croatia, Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina and his fellow countryman Romario.
Bwalya came 12th in the poll but considering he had long left Europe, where he had played for Dutch giants, and retreated to Mexico where he was now playing for America, this was hailed as a significant triumph for the Zambian as the award was dominated by European-based players.
The Zambian superstar had led his country to third place at the AFCON finals in South Africa in 1996, boycotted by the then defending champions Nigeria because of a diplomatic fallout between Abuja and Pretoria, while also winning the Golden Boot at the tournament with his five goals.
Fast forward to this year, and their lives today could not have been any different.
One’s life has gone full circle, with Weah having ascended to the Presidency of his country, while the other finds himself battling to clear his name soiled by a damaging corruption scandal that saw him being slapped with a two-year ban by FIFA and fined US$100,000.
This week, Weah invited his former coach Arsene Wenger, who spent more than two decades at English Premiership side Arsenal before leaving the team at the end of last season, to Monrovia to honour the Frenchman for his great services to the development of African football.
The Frenchman will be inducted into the country’s Order of Distinction and be given the title of Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption – the highest honour a person can be given in Liberia.
Weah was signed by Wenger, who was then in charge of French club Monaco, on the recommendations of Claude Le Roy, a veteran Frenchman who was in charge of Cameroon in 1988, where Weah was playing in Yaounde. Le Roy was also set to be honoured in Liberia this week.
“Every time I go on the pitch, playing for Arsene Wenger, I wanted him to know the ways I could pay him back,” Weah told FIFA. “I could break my knee, my face, my hand for him - just to win a game.
“He took care of me like his son, I could not believe it. When racism was at its peak, this is a man who showed me love.
“Besides God, I think that without Arsene, there was no way I would have made it in Europe.”
Interestingly, when Wenger became Arsenal boss in September 1996, his first African signing was Weah's cousin Christopher Wreh.
It opened the gates for the arrival of a number of African stars – Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), Marouane Chamakh (Morocco), Kaba Diawara (Guinea), Emmanuel Eboue (Côte d'Ivoire), Mohamed El Neny (Egypt), Emmanuel Frimpong (Ghana), Gervinho (Côte d'Ivoire), Alex Iwobi (Nigeria), Kanu (Nigeria),Lauren (Cameroon), Quincy (Ghana), Alex Song (Cameroon), Kolo Toure (Côte d'Ivoire) and Armand Traore (Senegal) – into the Gunners ranks.
Wenger’s final signing as the Arsenal manager would, also, be an African star – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon.
Sixteen African players have played for Arsenal in the era of the English Premiership and all have come under Wreh is one of 16 African footballers to have played for Arsenal in the Premier League since it began in 1992, all making their appearances under the Frenchman.
The irony of it all is that Wenger started his Arsenal adventure in the very same year that Bwalya finished 12th in the race for the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996.
While Weah and Wenger can reflect on a partnership that eventually provided gold for either of them, Bwalya is battling to clear a name that has been soiled by the ban from FIFA for allegedly receiving dirty money from the organisation’s former Vice President Mohammed Bin Hammam.
The Zambian was given US$80,000, which FIFA claim was a bribe from the former Qatari football strongman, who also had a spell as the boss of the Confederation of Asian Football before he was banned for life, although Bwalya insists it was a loan that he intended to pay back.
However, amid all this raging storm, Bwalya hasn’t been short of friends and last Thursday, a number of them turned to Twitter to congratulate him on his 55th birthday and also wish him all the best in his bid to clear his name.
“Happy birthday great @KalushaPBwalya. Thanks for the moments and my last pick of the moments is when you were player-coach at Independence Stadium Zambia vs Liberia coming off the bench. Epic,” said Gyae Nkusiasem on Twitter.
That match, on September 5, 2004, was a 2006 World Cup qualifier and Bwalya was his national team’s player/coach who introduced himself, with the game tied at 0-0, in the second half.
He was already 41 years old and he scored from a free-kick, his 100th goal for his country in his 147th appearance for Zambia, to win the match 1-0.