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Former soccer great Weah pursues higher education as part of quest for Liberian presidency

The photos of George Weah's soccer past are rapidly disappearing from the walls of his seaside villa, replaced by mementos of academic achievement and pictures of the Liberian goal-scoring great with political figures.

Weah, FIFA's Player of the Year in 1995, went into politics in 2005 and ran for president of his native country that year. Although he beat 21 other candidates to win the vote in the first round, he lost to eventual president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the second round.

Many believe his lack of formal education was the reason for the defeat, and Weah appears determined not to let that undermine his chances in the 2011 election.

"These are ever-since pictures," the 43-year-old Weah said in an interview with The Associated Press in the Monrovia suburb of Paynesville. "I am now in my senior year and by God's help I am graduating from college next July."

Weah received a high school diploma in 2007, and said he has since been studying business administration at DeVry University, an American for-profit school that Weah says he attended in Miami. He denied his desire for more education was based on his hope of becoming president, insisting he wants "to improve my potential and because I think it is the right thing to do."

Born and raised in a Monrovia slum, Weah was a star striker for AC Milan and won FIFA's top award while at the Italian club. He also played for Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Chelsea and Manchester City before going into politics in a country founded and colonized by freed American slaves and nearly torn apart by civil wars started by former president Charles Taylor.

Taylor is currently on trial in the Netherlands on charges of murder, rape, sexual enslavement and recruiting child soldiers. Years after the fighting, Liberia is still plagued by wrecked industries, poor roads and limited electricity even in the capital.

Weah's lack of political knowledge didn't prevent his good showing in the 2005 presidential election. He and his party alleged that ballot-stuffing was one of the reasons he lost.

"We were a young party, organized just four months before the election," Weah said. "Things that were lacking have been put into right perspective."

Since that loss, Weah said he feels his decision to get an education has prepared him for future political challenges.

"I was seeking again to go to the convention so that I can run on the people's ticket, and I have been petitioned to run," Weah said before an old-timers soccer match. "That shows I am running again.

"I am knowledgeable. I think I can develop this country with a good team, we can do things better than what Ellen is doing," Weah added. "I am an honest person who wants to see the country prosper. I want to see the people grow. The middle class that is missing in the country is what we want to bring about."

Support for Weah is strong among some Liberians, including roadside sellers and passers-by — one of them a university student who argues why the former sportsman is needed as president.

"He's not a Harvard or Cambridge product, but at least he knows the basic things human beings need to survive. He knows that a society of hungry people is doomed," James Kieh said. "And once Weah is able to put these in place, this is one of the things Liberians are yearning for."

Not everyone agrees Weah is the one to bring it to the country.

"I like George Weah but not as Liberia's president," said Maria Cooper, a local businesswoman. "He can be of better service to Liberia by helping to improve soccer. This is where he belongs."

For the 2011 election, Weah said he's in consultation with other political parties about potential alliances to avoid going out in the second round.

"We want to put him in power because he cares for the youths and common people," 18-year-old local Sekou Kuyon said. "And if he becomes president he will open a soccer academy for us."

Although Weah now lives on an estate with a giant swimming pool, many Liberians still remember him spending his youth playing soccer in the slums.

"He is a humanitarian. He's a man who caters to people," said Panpee Wreh, a longtime friend of Weah and youth soccer coach. "From the 1960s, when he and I grew up together, I knew he was going to become someone great."