If narrowly missing out on the 1990 World Cup felt like a missed opportunity for Liberia, 2002’s absence will have been a real kick in the teeth.
Both disappointing endings to promising qualifying campaigns may have been 12 years apart, yet they rankled and may well still do so in the West African nation.
For a country not used to finding itself in such promising situations often, the twin absences have gone down as massive opportunities missed to make their debut at the sport’s greatest showpiece.
The Lone Stars lost out at Egypt’s expense in 1989, while they failed to get the better of Nigeria at the start of the millennium. There were similarities in both failures too: the Liberians recovered from false starts, cobbled together a few good results mid-qualifying to put them on the brink, only to run out of steam at the finish line.
George Weah featured in both unsuccessful attempts, one at the start of his illustrious career and the latter in his mid-30s.
Liberia’s talisman scored what he hoped will be an important goal in the final game of Group B at Sierra Leone in 2001, but Nigeria’s resounding 3-0 success over West African neighbours Ghana threw a spanner in the works. The final standings had the Super Eagles on 16 points, a hair’s breadth in front of the lowly aspirants on 15.
For context, Cameroon in Group A finished on 19 points, six ahead of Angola. Tunisia (20) beat Ivory Coast by five points and South Africa ended with 16 points, four ahead of Zimbabwe in Groups D and E respectively. Senegal’s superior goal difference was what denied Morocco a plane ticket to Korea/Japan in 2002, as both sides in Group C ending 15 points apiece.
However, while it will have been the Atlas Lions’ fifth participation at the finals, and third on the spin, Liberia were gunning for a first elusive appearance, and had they succeeded, they would have been among the smallest countries to ever reach the grandest stage.
Interestingly, Weah netted just twice for the entirety of the qualifiers, in matchday five’s 2-0 success against Sudan and the final group encounter with Sierra Leone.
The former was responsible for a faulty start by the lowly West Africans, defeating the Lone Stars 2-0 in the opening group fixture. However, Liberia’s tenacity fired them to four straight wins and that doggedness took them top of the standings after matchday five.
That unforeseen run included successive wins over Nigeria and the Black Stars, before sealing it with an impressive 2-0 win against the Sudan team that got the better of them in the opening round of games. If anything, Liberia’s success showed how much they’d grown since the matchday one reverse.
After five games, Weah’s troops led the way with 12 points. The Super Eagles with seven points were trailing by five and a disappointing Ghana had mustered a sole win and two draws in their matches.
The Sudanese, on nine points, were joint-surprise packages alongside the group leaders, and it was that colossal triumph for the hosts at the National Complex in Monrovia that separated both sides atop Group B.
With three games to play, Liberia’s tails were up. Admittedly, they still had to come through two games against Nigeria and the Black Stars unscathed, still, there was reason to retain optimism nonetheless.
They held a three-point lead over Sudan, with a healthy goal difference to boot, while they’d already stunned Ghana 3-1 in Accra in round three. So, theoretically, all the Lone Stars had to do was avoid a heavy defeat at the hands of the Eagles, repeat the trick against Ghana, and pick up a win over bottom Sierra Leone.
Nigeria, with failure staring them in the face, turned the screw with a 2-0 win over Weah and his teammates to close the gap to two points in the hope that Liberia will cave…and they did.
The Black Stars defeated the group leaders 2-1 in Monrovia to pick up their first away win of the qualifying campaign, ending the Lone Stars’ three-game winning streak on home turf in the series.
Playing later in the day, the Super Eagles knew a win was non-negotiable in Sudan if they wanted to supplant the surprise leaders at that point. Jay-Jay Okocha scored with half-time approaching, then Yakubu netted twice either side of Julius Aghahowa’s strike to see to a whopping 4-0 victory. That turned out to be the Falcons of Jediane’s only blemish in Omdurman.
Going into the final matchday, the table had changed: Nigeria (13), Liberia (12), and Ghana (11) were the top three. The nation from Northeast Africa had nine points, so qualification was already out of reach.
The 1995 World and European Player of the Year netted as the Lone Stars defeated cellar-dwelling Sierra Leone 1-0 in Freetown and now hoped the seemingly resurgent Black Stars would do them a favour in what was billed to be a tight game in Port-Harcourt.
Nigeria, though, were in no mood to show their rivals mercy: three first-half goals at the Liberation Stadium by Victor Agali and a Tijani Babangida brace saw the hosts race into a 3-0 half-time lead, and en route to topping the group.
With three games to go, Liberia had been on course to register a truly historic qualification, only for their composure to desert them in the final three games.
Credit must go to Nigeria for exerting pressure with three wins on the spin, but Weah and co. just needed a win over the Black Stars to secure their nation a historic place in the global spectacle.
The upshot of their failure was one of Africa’s greatest players never featuring at the World Cup, and perhaps Weah still thinks about what might have been had the Lone Stars held their nerve in that clash with Ghana and denied Nigeria's magnificent generation their spot at the 2002 tournament.