Ghana and the Fragile World-Cup Pan-Africanism

Hua's note: Uncomfortable moment last weekend as some friends and I watched the United States-Ghana match at a bar in Manhattan: a supporter of the former urged our boys on by yelling, "Come on, white!" She was referring to the U.S. squad's all-white strip, but still.

Ghana's Black Stars -- who will play Uruguay at 2:30 EST on Friday -- will not let you forget who it is you are rooting for. And now, as guest blogger Anmol explains, they have an entire continent behind them, at least for the time being, at least when it comes to football. But what do these continental good vibes actually mean?

By Anmol Chaddha

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA---By the end of the group round last Friday, all but one African team had been eliminated. For the first World Cup held in Africa, this was a letdown. Only Ghana and South Africa even managed to win any matches -- SA's win over France put Les Bleus out of their misery, but would not be enough to take the hosts into the next round. While French legislators grilled team officials in hearings on their humiliating performance, Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan skipped the show trial and quickly announced that he would suspend  his team from international play for two years. We had been warned not to expect much from African sides, but the demands to represent for Africa may actually have created an even greater burden for the players. After Cote d'Ivoire was eliminated, an Ivorian player told the New York Times: "Expectations were huge and we owed it to ourselves to perform well, but the pressure has caused us more stress than anything else and inhibited our talents."

Just a day after the end of the group round, the tone changed abruptly. In a dramatic victory over the U.S. last Saturday, Ghana advanced to the quarterfinals and has already done as well as any African team ever has in the World Cup. Asamaoh Gyan's goal in extra time renewed hopes for African success, apparently united a continent behind Ghana, and ushered in a FIFA-inflected Pan-African moment. Former President Thabo Mbeki, who had receded from view after his own party recalled him in 2008, re-emerged this week to call on South Africans to back Ghana's Black Stars. While in office, Mbeki often promoted an African Renaissance involving achievements in culture, science, and politics to outweigh the problems often associated with Africa. No doubt, if Ghana were to beat Uruguay and become the first African team to advance to the semifinals, Mbeki would surely view their trajectory as part of his African Renaissance project.

Several provinces here are officially encouraging South Africans to fly the Ghanaian flag and wear their national colors. As the ultimate embrace, Nelson Mandela invited the Black Stars over for a visit this Saturday, probably hoping to celebrate a victory in the quarterfinals and to prep the team for a semifinal match next week.

At the risk of going down the soccer-explains-everything route, it is not a stretch to see that the pursuit of the Pan-African ideal has had an ongoing relationship with soccer on the continent. Soon after winning independence for Ghana in 1948, Kwame Nkrumah created the national football team as part of the project of postcolonial nation building. He named the team the 'Black Stars' after the ships commissioned by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey to return black Americans 'back to Africa.'  The Africa Cup of Nations has been organized with regularity since it was first held in 1957, in the first years of post-colonial independence, and it has served as an important institution that has successfully coordinated activities across African nations for more than 50 years. Reflecting a collective identity and capacity for joint political action, the African teams all boycotted the 1966 World Cup to protest FIFA's process for qualifying for the tournament, which they viewed as unfairly disadvantaging teams from Africa.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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