Subscribe for 17¢ / day

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Soccer star George Weah did the worst thing he could to war-cursed Liberia and its numbed people: Made them hope.

Even after his house was sacked by combatants in Liberia’s ruinous, seven-year civil war, the former World Player of the Year had returned to his home country to lead its team as close as it had ever come to the World Cup tournament.

But not close enough. On Sunday, Liberia lost.

The hissing started with 15 minutes left to play and Liberia trailing Ghana 2-1. Curses flew. Then bottles.

President Charles Taylor stalked out of the stadium, his season of elated dancing in the stands abruptly ended.

The target of the abuse stood on the field, anguished and angry: Weah, the Liberian’s 35-year-old star player, technical director, and unofficial leader and coach.

That morning, Weah, who sank years and millions of his own dollars into the national soccer team, was being hailed as “hero,” “King George,” even “Jesus Christ.”

By nightfall, his family had to flee a stone-throwing mob and Weah was preparing to leave the country forever.

“With all our poverty, with all our strife … why should they dash our hopes in this manner?” asked James Tuo, peddling goods in the streets of the capital, Monrovia, after the loss.

“I did not expect George to bring us this far, and frustrate us.”

“George Weah is a curse to Liberia!” one fan yelled Sunday, hurling an empty bottle.

Bitter, Weah announced he was quitting Liberian soccer. He would go to the United States and live with his family there, he said.

“I cannot take such insults, just for losing a match,” he told The Associated Press late Monday.

It marked a radical change for a man who had been one of Liberia’s proudest — and most loyal — sons throughout his 15-year career.

In a Sports Illustrated article in April, Weah credited Liberian soccer with taking him from the streets of Monrovia to the playing fields of AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City, Monaco and Olympique Marseille.

Weah’s career flourished abroad in the 1990s while Liberia fell apart.

Warlords vying for power fought a seven-year war of mindless destruction and atrocities. Under Taylor, a warlord elected to the presidency in 1997, life for many today remains a bleak struggle for survival with little relief — no running water, no electricity.

But even as the U.N. Security Council punished Liberia with sanctions for alleged arms- and diamond-trafficking with the brutal rebels of neighboring Sierra Leone, UNICEF honored Weah one of its special representatives for sports.

In 1996, while Weah was away at a match in Europe, his home in Monrovia was gutted in an attack by armed bands. By some reports, female members of the household were raped at gunpoint.

Days earlier Weah had given an interview in which he urged democracy in Liberia. The Liberian president felt compelled to deny responsibility.

But Weah returned to Liberia. Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying that a man who burned the bridge to his past was lost.

Coming home, Weah took charge of Liberia’s team, the Lone Star. Liberians loved him for buying jerseys, plane tickets to games — anything and everything players needed.

And Liberians loved him for making the team play as it never had — giving them something in their broken nation that worked.

The impoverished nation with its war-looted soccer stadium soared in the standings — entering, incredibly, contender position Sunday.

A win against Ghana, playing on home turf at Monrovia, would have taken Liberia’s Lone Star to the World Cup in Asia in 2002.

“The whole world is watching,” Taylor told the players in a pre-game visit.

He promised to be in the stands for the team’s first World Cup event.

Taken from their daily miseries, 10,000-strong crowds lined the fields just to watch practices.

Female choirs visited the players’ hotel Sunday morning, singing favorite hymns of the deeply religious Weah. Weah came out of his room to join in.

Hours later, it was all over. The game ended where it was when Taylor turned his back on it, and walked out of the stadium: 2-1, Ghana.

Weah blamed his players — saying they hadn’t run hard enough, hadn’t listened to his instructions. He was most upset by the profanities he had overheard — citing a curse that impugned his mother as his reason for quitting the team.

“Even when people have committed atrocities they don’t insult their mothers,” Weah said late Sunday, in a surreal Liberian mix of sensitivities after horrors.

Weah’s family briefly fled their home in a Monrovia suburb to escape a stone-throwing mob. Weah stayed at the seaside villa, for now.

He refuses crowds who surround his home, begging him to change his mind, and stay for good.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.