World Cup offers hope of new perception for Cameroon and Africa

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; D01

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.

Across Africa, where tribal loyalties dominate, soccer has helped foster a sense of national identity. In Cameroon, once divided between its French- and English-speaking parts, tensions remain high. Anglophones increasingly feel alienated from a Francophone-led government that's firmly in the grip of President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982. Corruption is widespread; the gulf between rich and poor is vast.

But the divisions seem to evaporate whenever the Lions play. "Soccer is the only stock where every Cameroonian feels invested like a Cameroonian," Dibango said.

These days, though, attendance at local matches has dwindled from the previous decade, players and coaches said. The spread of satellite television, by which worldwide matches are shown around the clock, is one reason.

So is poverty, deepened by the global economic crisis. "People are starving. They are more worried about their survival," said Simon Pierre Etoundi, a sports journalist with the Cameroon Tribune newspaper.

"But when the Lions play it is different."

Ask Bienvenu Kenne, a 23-year-old clothing vendor in Yaounde's bustling street market. He has seen the sales of his green and yellow Lions jerseys double over the past two months. Each costs between $10 and $20 -- a princely sum here.

Kenne, too, wore a Lions jersey emblazoned with a "9," the number of his favorite Cameroonian star, Samuel Eto'o, the most decorated African player ever who led Cameroon to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics and now plays for the famed Inter Milan in Italy's Serie A.

"When I watch the Lions and Samuel Eto'o, it is pure pleasure. You forget the difficulties of life," said Kenne, who dropped out of high school to support his family.

Many are hoping the Lions reach the quarterfinals or beyond in South Africa. No African team has made a World Cup final. But with more and more African professionals playing in Europe, the odds of an African winner have never been higher.

"We have to believe in our team," said Roger Milla, who at age 38 scored four goals at the 1990 World Cup for the Lions, making him one of the first major African soccer stars. "With hard work and discipline, we can win."

Eyes of the world

Unlike previous World Cups, there is more scrutiny and pressure on the organizers -- not least because of the continent's negative image.

"Even 20 days before the World Cup, there are people doubting the capabilities of South Africa to host the World Cup," said Samuel Noufesse, president of Lausanne, a local Cameroonian team. "If South Africa can host it without problems, it will help change the perceptions the world has about Africa."

Others are cynical. They note that South Africa has staged other large events, including the Rugby World Cup in 1995. However successful next month's World Cup, they say it will do little to change the continent's grim realities. "It won't change the perceptions of Africa," said Milla, shaking his head.

But perhaps the biggest impact could be on the next generation, especially if African teams do well. "They will dream of achieving the same thing, and they will have more confidence they can achieve their dreams," Noufesse said.

Anguissa, the young player, is already confident. He practices five hours a day. He embraces his parents' sacrifices. It is all part of the plan, he said, to "become the best football player in the world."

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