MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberians are flocking to the presidential campaign of a former international soccer star with little formal education and no political experience who promises peace and development for his war-scarred country.
"As I look in your faces tonight, I see that I am your future," said George Weah, his voice booming to boisterous fans as he launched his campaign with an all-night rally this week. His supporters waved placards reading "Rescue Liberia, Vote Weah."
Rival candidate Sekou Conneh, a former rebel leader, helped drive corrupt former President Charles Taylor into exile. Another hopeful, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, lists Citibank vice president and World Bank official on her resume.
George Weah, however, was FIFA's World Player of the Year in 1995. He also coached and played for the national team of Liberia, where soccer has a riveting hold on fans. He sometimes used his own money to pay the team's expenses and travel costs.
Now, the 38-year-old Weah is among 22 candidates running in Oct. 11 elections overseen by nearly 15,000 U.N. troops guarding the country's transition to democracy after the end of its 1989-03 crisis.
His opponents, many with much more time in public service, question whether a man with only a high school education is capable of leading this nation of 3 million out of its troubles.
Weah, whose roots are in Monrovia's slums, has a populist rejoinder: Liberians should look at their crumbling roads, ruined government buildings and refugee camps and ask whether the elite that held power for so long have the answers.
"Politicians have been up there and the masses have been down for many years. It is time for the masses to go up," Weah told The Associated Press in an interview. "With all their education and experience, they have governed this nation for hundreds of years. They have never done anything for the nation."
In a deeply impoverished country where only about half the adult population can read, his lack of educational credentials may be a boon.
"Degree holders, where are you? Weah is already in the [presidential] mansion," his supporters chanted at the election rally.
Weah became a UNICEF ambassador in 1997. He has worked with the U.N. agency to help fight the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa through education and to promote vocational training to rehabilitate child soldiers from African countries.
If he wins, Weah says his administration will focus on putting about 70,000 former combatants to work. He also promises to lower the presidential term limit from six years to four.
Liberia, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, is Africa's longest self-governed republic. In 1980, in the country's first coup, President William Tolbert was overthrown. In 1989, a charismatic warlord named Charles Taylor -- educated, and once imprisoned, in the United States -- led a small band of cohorts into Liberia from the neighboring Ivory Coast.
Taylor fought government troops and former allies in a battle that killed 150,000 and ruined nearly every countryside hamlet. In 1996, West African intervention forces quelled the fighting.
Taylor won elections in 1997 and ruled harshly. Another insurgency, including many former Taylor allies, erupted in 2000. Under heavy international pressure, Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria in August 2003 and a peace deal and U.N. force were quickly implemented.
Weah said threats from Taylor's government once forced him from the country, and he vowed not to return while Taylor held power.
Weah's ascent from Monrovia's slums to the heights of international soccer resonates with the aspirations of many Liberians.
Tall and fast, he starred at striker for Chelsea and AC Milan. He was honored as Africa's top player four times and was the first African to be named Europe's top player. Weah, who also had successful spells with Monaco and Paris Saint Germain, helped lead the worldwide spread of African soccer stars, especially to Europe.
Other Liberians, though, question whether soccer stardom makes him fit to run the country.
"This football legend, in my opinion, should not be misled into continuing his presidential bid," said John Kehler, a 38-year old university student. "He's quite inexperienced for the job. This is not a popularity contest."