Why Are 53 Countries Rooting for Ghana?

"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."

And yes, the "single story" of dysfunction can be dangerous. Dambisa Moyo, in her controversial book Dead Aid, created a fictional country of "Dongo" in order to illustrate general symptoms in African economics:

"Like Nigeria and Malawi, Dongo was granted its independence in the 1960s. Like Uganda and Botswana, it is struggling under the weight of HIV-AIDS. Like Zambia, Mali, Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dongo relies on commodities as a primary source of export revenue..."

But while Moyo's crude summary is reductive, it is also potentially useful--and the same could be said for the African solidarity principle that the World Cup is bringing to light.

Many economic analyses lump the sub-Sahara into a single category--to comparative advantage: Taken as a whole, the continent stacks up admirably against GDP growth rates in populous, developing nation-states like China, India, Brazil and Russia. And there are,  of course, continental bodies like the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the New Partnership for African Development that see some good in Africa-the-continent. Moyo still holds out hope for a pan-African economic community, pegged to a single currency and finally cooperating on trade. None of that has come to fruition yet; indeed, tariffs on intra-African trade are often prohibitive--and it still costs more to call Lagos from Luanda than to call London.

These are good developmental reasons for Africans to work together. But here, the potency of "brand Africa" may be driving the continental love-fest. MTN created a jersey for "Africa United," its fictional squad featuring Michael Essien of Ghana, John Obi Mikel of Nigeria, Salomon Kalou of Cameroon and others. Puma likewise enlisted Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley to create a pan-African "Unity" kit for star players Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon, John Mensah of Ghana and Emmanuel Eboué of Ivory Coast. A Puma representative in Cape Town informed me that the brown in Wiley's accompanying painting was custom-made from soil samples from four African countries. In the end, the mishmash of "Africa-the-continent" may simply be more marketable than the narrative of any individual country.

As Ghana gears up to carry the dreams of 900 million a bit farther, it's understandable that Africans wish to take part in the journey of a nation in a similarly underdogged position. It's likewise understandable that corporations want to bottle this spirit and sell it at a premium--within and without the continent. Still, pan-African fandom is by no means universally accepted. A library just near Cape Town's stadium is decked in a 40-foot Brazilian flag. A teenaged Nigerian fan in a Ronaldinho jersey told me that he was, in fact, pulling for Argentina. In football, as in Africa, it's choose your own adventure.