"When you're playing an African team, you're playing the whole continent." So reads one of several different World Cup ads sponsored by South African telecommunications giant MTN. The participatory slogans ("I Believe in Africa"; "United We Score") riff on a theme of continental solidarity--and their ubiquitous placement seems to reinforce the point. The bus-yellow signs greeted me in Lagos, Nigeria, and again when I landed in Cape Town this week.
One hesitates to generalize about a continent of nearly 1 billion people. As someone who usually snaps "Which country?" when "Africa" is mentioned, I confess that the World Cup is making me lose my edge. After Nigeria became one of the five African teams that flamed out in the first round, my cohort in Lagos decided to back the Black Stars from neighboring Ghana. The barroom logic: If our team can't get it together, then we'll root for the next best thing. After Saturday's victory over the United States, the Black Stars--only the third African squad (after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002) to make the quarterfinals--quickly became the team of choice for other friends in the black diaspora, and a standard-bearer for the promise of the first African tournament.
Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanaian striker who sent the U.S. packing in the 93rd minute of their match, seemed to recognize as much: "We've made everybody proud," he said in a post-game interview. "Not Ghana alone, but the whole of Africa." The Ghanaian coach, Serbian Milovan Rajevak, concurred. "To qualify is really very important for us and for Africa," he said. South Africa's ruling ANC party officially congratulated the team "for doing Africa proud," while I found myself cheering wildly for the nation that killed the American dream. On the day I arrived in Cape Town, the nation's Sunday Times declared: "The first African country to gain independence are again leading the continent's aspirations."
Suddenly, pan-African solidarity appears to trump major differences in culture, history and geography. But why? In similar circumstances, would the United States (out of the running) cheer the Mexican team (out), or the South Koreans (out) root for Japan (still kicking)? The answer is probably not--and suggests that the myth of "Africa" is more seductive than even Africans want to admit.
In the context of history, the cheering makes some sense. Under leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and even Joseph Mobutu, nationalism thrived in the 1960s and 70s. But the African states that have since failed their citizens time and again today inspire a less than robust sense of civic pride. Ethnic, linguistic or religious identification may generally be stronger than the political borders that partition the West African coast, for example--or do not partition the vast, conflict-ridden eastern Congo. And for many of the African nations that did not qualify--Senegal, Kenya, Angola and Egypt, to name a few--the South African World Cup was always going to be a proxy war.
For some, the tournament is an equally important battle of imagery that Ghana's success will help to fight. "It's important to promote good news on this continent," says Teddy Ruge, an entrepreneur living in Kampala. "The team is one good news story that deserves as much ink as possible.... This is the other side of the 'single story' on Africa."