American soccer fans disillusioned by their country's failure to qualify for next summer's FIFA World Cup may soon be shouting a new four-letter word at their TV screens. At the Under-17 edition of the sport's showpiece tournament this past month in India, printed on the back of the USA's Number 10 shirt was a small word with big connotations: WEAH.
For anybody who has followed global soccer for more than a few seasons, the surname will immediately strike a chord. It will also prompt a pair of questions, the answer to both of which is yes.
Yes, Timothy Tarpeh Weah, the leggy young man wearing the binary numbers on his back, is the son of George Weah.
And yes, he too has an eye for goal.
"King George" was a Liberian forward named World Player of the Year in 1995. During an 18-season career, he made a living tearing past sorry defenders to score almost 200 goals, collect league titles with Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, and be crowned Africa's best player three times. After winning the FA Cup with Chelsea in May 2000, three months after the birth of his second son, he celebrated on the pitch at Wembley with a t-shirt that read: "I believe in God, Timothy."
George, who is a presidential candidate in Liberia, was born in Monrovia and grew up playing with a worn-out ball in the city's slums. "Timmy" (as his friends call him) was born in New York after his dad met wife Clar while opening a bank account in the Big Apple. Young Tim was, in his own words, "kicking a ball from the moment I was born" and went on to captain New York's BW Gottschee, despite being a year younger than his teammates.
"It was around then that I really thought I can be something; that I can make a name for myself," Weah told VICE Sports in Delhi. "Usually a parent wants their child to be exactly like them, but my father gave me the freedom to be myself and play my own game, so I've never really felt any added pressure.
"Actually, sometimes going into games, opponents would tend to say 'Oh, his father was the best player in the world,' so they'd get a little bit scared. I've always tried to use that to my advantage."
At 13, Weah joined New York Red Bulls, but spent the summer in London training with Chelsea, whose defender Mark Guéhi remembers him as "a special player" and "always a big attacking threat." An offer from the London club never materialized, but soon after, during a trial with French side Toulouse, Weah caught the eye of PSG scouts, who invited him to join their U15 side.
Weah's older brother, George Jr, had played for the Parisian side's second string and helped his younger sibling with the cultural transition. Tim settled quickly: In his first full season, he scored a hat-trick in the UEFA Youth League — the age-group equivalent of the Champions League—and later notched five goals in a single match during a youth tournament in Qatar.
"It was a big challenge for Tim," says John Hackworth, the USA U17 coach. "When he went there, he spoke no French at all, but he worked hard on it and was fluent within five months. He's very proud of that because while his name might have gotten him in the door, he had to do the work and earn the contract himself."
In July of this year, he signed his first professional deal, tying him to Paris until 2020. He is now focused on breaking into the first-team squad by the end of the year, an ambitious goal given the wealth of attacking talent at the Parc des Princes. Exactly one month after signing his contract, Weah watched excitedly as PSG—owned by the Qatar Investment Authority and recognised as one of the game's richest clubs — bought Neymar Jr for a record $260 million fee. A few weeks later, another marquee deal was agreed, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe joining from Monaco for an eventual $210 million.
"I don't think it will be hard for me to break into the team because I am very versatile," says Weah, who shares his father's room-warming smile as well as his confidence. "I can play on the wing, I can play through the middle, you can play me anywhere. But just being around those type of players is awesome, and with Neymar being my favorite player, it would be very cool to play alongside him. It's the same throughout the squad though, be it Mbappe or [Edinson] Cavani—just learning from those kind of players is really important for a young player like me."
Weah has so far trained only with the first-team substitutes, but at PSG's U19 level he continues to display his old man's knack for finding the net. In September, against Celtic in the UEFA Youth League, he scored the winning goal in a 3-2 victory. His leaping, pinpoint header was more than a little reminiscent of his dad.
"Since his move to PSG, he has grown in all areas," says Andrew Carleton, an international teammate who has played alongside Weah since they were 13 years old. "He's gone from a player who was always really good but sometimes inconsistent, to becoming a more consistent player and someone we can rely on, game in, game out."
Measuring six-foot, one-inch and boasting the build of a sprinter, Weah runs ostrich-like with his chest slightly ahead of his feet. It gives the impression even his own legs can't keep up with his desire to get to where he's going. In India, he was deployed as a left winger and became the first American male to register a hat-trick in a knockout-round at a World Cup. His second of three against Paraguay in the Round of 16 was an audacious right-footed strike from distance.
"He is a young man who can take it as high as he wants," says coach Hackworth. "He has the potential, he's certainly a fantastic athlete, and he's dedicated to being a very good pro. I think it's just a matter of time. He is still a young man with a lot to learn, but he has so much potential. He's a wonderful example to others too: works hard, takes everything very serious, and is a pro off the field."
That professionalism quickly became apparent at the World Cup. From the day the USA squad arrived, pumped full of anti-malarial drugs, Weah was the player most sought after by the swarms of Indian press. While his hat-trick only served to increase the hype, he remained obliging, graciously answering the same banal questions about his father that follow him everywhere. Even after the US were eliminated by eventual winners England in the quarter-finals, he fronted up once more, taking time to discuss not only the disappointing result, but also his future, faith, and family.
Unlike many of this young US team, Weah's parents did not travel to India. His father was busy campaigning in Liberia—he faces a run-off on November 7 after obtaining a plurality in last month's election. He lost a similar run-off in 2005, but has spoken often about how much he learned from that first loss and how it has prepared him better for this campaign.
It is a lesson the young Weah has taken onboard. The U17s defeat to England hurt, but much like the senior team's failure to qualify for Russia, he says it will only motivate him to train harder, play smarter, and ultimately win more games when his turn comes around.
"It's true," he says, "sometimes you learn more from a defeat than a victory. We fought until the end and I hope to be back at a World Cup with the U20s or maybe the first team. It's all up to God and I know I still have a lot to work on, but discipline, dedication and desire will get me to where I want to go. Of that I'm sure."