World Cup 2010 14 days

World Cup offers hope of new perception for Cameroon and Africa

A young Cameroonian shows off his soccer skills weeks before the opening of the World Cup in South Africa. Cameroon is one of six African nations sending a team to the tournament.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON -- On the red earth of a soccer field, Jean Yves Anguissa moves the tattered ball with grace.

The soles of his fake Pumas have holes, as do his worn black socks. His father is a carpenter, his mother a tailor. The pennies they save are invested in him. As he weaves past his opponents, the lean 15-year-old carries his parents' dreams, too.

"They hope I will make them rich one day," Anguissa said.

In less than three weeks, he will watch his heroes -- wealthy African players who were once poor boys like him -- take the field in South Africa for the continent's first World Cup. "It's such a great joy!" Anguissa gushed. "I never expected the World Cup to be held in Africa."

Hardly anyone expects the historic event to alter the trajectory of the continent. Western sponsors, not African firms, are expected to reap billions in profits. The vast majority of Africans cannot afford to travel to South Africa or pay for tickets. And in the world's poorest region, there are more pressing priorities.

Yet on a continent where soccer represents something far greater than a sport -- a symbol of unity, an escape or a source of dreams -- there is overwhelming pride and significance attached to hosting the World Cup.

"It is a sign that Africa is playing a growing role on the world stage," said Asha-Rose Migiro, the United Nations deputy secretary general who is from Tanzania. She spoke last week before hundreds of dignitaries, who burst into applause at a celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence from colonial rule for Cameroon and 16 other African nations.

Many Africans hope stereotypes of their continent as an incubator of AIDS, corruption and wars will be shattered, if briefly, at the sight of an African nation staging the world's most-watched sporting event.

"It is time for the whole world to know that disease, conflict, the negative stuff do not define Africa today," said Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian saxophonist. "We are alive. We are ready to compete. There is a lot of positive energy around."

A national identity

In Cameroon, a nation of almost 20 million people in west-central Africa, the energy is visible -- and it revolves around soccer. In 1990, the national team, the Indomitable Lions, reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, a first for any African team. That helped a new generation of African players gain recognition and play in Europe, home of the world's elite professional leagues. Cameroon and five other African nations -- South Africa, Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast -- have qualified for this year's World Cup.

Today, a golden lion statue greets visitors outside this capital's international airport. The now-defunct national airline handed out "Lions" miles in its frequent-flyer program. Billboards around the capital declare: "Live football. Love Lions 4 Life."

"It is a religion. It is a vehicle for peace," said Thomas Libih, who played for the Indomitable Lions in the 1990 World Cup. He recalled how thousands of cheering Cameroonians greeted them at the airport upon their return.

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