Soccer star George Weah returned to Liberia on Friday with a college degree from DeVry University in Miami in hand in an effort to counter critics who say his limited education makes him unfit to lead.
Born in a slum in Liberia's capital, Weah went on to become a FIFA World Player of the Year before turning to politics. His loss to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the 2005 election was largely due to what critics say is his lack of a formal education.
Weah will be running in this fall's presidential election as vice president alongside Harvard-trained lawyer Winston Tubman. It's a choice aimed at silencing opponents, since Sirleaf, who is running for re-election, is herself a Harvard-trained economist.
Wilmot Paye, the secretary-general of Sirleaf's party, discounted Weah's achievement, saying it takes more than a college degree to run a country. "People are trying to make noise about his achievement as a college-degree holder. But that is not a basis upon which Weah should, or can, be elected. It is about experience," Paye said.
"Even if he were to be employed by a company, they would take him as a starter," he said.
The huge crowd that came to greet him clogged the road into Monrovia on Friday. The 44-year-old forward is a hero to many here because he represents possibility, and the ability to rise above one's origins.
Spotted by a scout in the late 1980s, Weah went on to rack up soccer-player-of-the-year titles playing for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Chelsea and AC Milan. That only got him so far, however, when he attempted to run for office.
The scandal was fueled by the discovery that the degree in Sports Management listed on the CV posted on his campaign website was from a diploma mill in London. Parkwood University is accused of selling phony diplomas, according to an expose on the practice by the University of Illinois, which showed that every aspect of the college's website down to the president's message to students had been plagiarized from that of an accredited university.
Weah has argued that the same people that are criticizing his lack of education are the ones who destroyed Liberia, which is recovering from years of civil war.
"Our country today is dilapidated because of President Sirleaf," Weah charged. "She broke this country. She broke people's hearts. There is a lot of corruption in her government," he said.
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report.