Africa's World Cup hopes all rest on Ghana's shoulders

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010

JOHANNESBURG -- The first World Cup on the continent was supposed to represent Africa's emergence as a global player. But in sporting terms, at least, it has disappointed.

South Africa became the first host nation in World Cup history to exit in the first round. Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, the most feared of the six African nations to qualify, met the same fate after losing their three matches. Nigeria, Algeria and the Ivory Coast soon followed.

Ghana is the lone bright spot. And as its Black Stars prepare for Saturday's match against the United States with a place in the quarterfinals at stake, Ghana now carries the hopes of a continent on its shoulders.

"All of Africa will support Ghana," said Jomo Sono, 54, a South African soccer legend and former coach of Bafana Bafana. "We'll all pray for Ghana to go as far as the finals."

And the Black Stars have heard the prayers.

"Ghana is the African hope now," said defender Samuel Inkoom on Friday. "We are not going to disappoint them."

Still, the game-day atmosphere at Rustenburg's 40,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium isn't likely to tilt in Ghana's favor. President John Evans Atta Mills of Ghana is expected to attend, as is former U.S. president Bill Clinton. But it's a long, costly trip to South Africa. And most of the 1,000 Ghanaian supporters who were flown in and lodged for 15 days at their government's expense to cheer the team have been flown home, according to news reports, because funding wasn't budgeted beyond the first round.

Ghana is a team the Americans know well.

The Black Stars bounced the United States with a 2-1 victory in the third game of the first round in 2006. While Ghana's coach has changed (as has the United States's), six players from that squad are among the current roster.

And supporters have reason to believe the Black Stars will hold sway again despite the fact that the team scored only two goals in the first round -- in a 1-0 victory over Serbia and a 1-1 draw with Australia. Both were scored by Asamoah Gyan, the lone striker in Coach Milovan Rajevac's 4-3-2-1 scheme.

Ghana is young and energetic, boasting members of the team that defeated Brazil for the under-20 World Cup in 2009. And its confidence is high, having advanced to the Round of 16 for a second consecutive World Cup.

Still, few Africans thought it would come to this: That only one team from the continent would be standing among the final 16.

The disappointment is most acutely felt in South Africa.

Even though Bafana Bafana were the lowest ranked among the African teams, many South Africans believed that the pride and enthusiasm of hosting the event would elevate the players to rare heights.

Sono, who never had the chance to play in a World Cup because he competed during the apartheid era, didn't hide his dismay during a panel discussion about the state of African football.

"I am proud that at least [Bafana Bafana] won one game against France," Sono said. "I strongly believe we could have done better with the preparation we put in, with the money we put in, with the high quality coach (Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira, who has stepped down). We should have done better."

The sentiment was echoed by Kalusha Bwalya, a former Zambian star and member of FIFA's technical committee.

"In some moments, we showed the way African football is played," Bwalya said. "In some moments, we were not good. We fell apart. We could not manage the stress or the nervousness of competing at home. I don't think we managed it properly."

Soccer historian Peter Alegi, author of "African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World's Game," believes that hopes for multiple African teams to advance were unrealistic.

"To expect that out of these six, more than two would come through maybe reflected people getting caught up in the exuberance of the moment," said Alegi, a Michigan State professor who's currently lecturing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "When you dissect it and put in into historical perspective, I don't think people should be so down. Yes, it would have been nice, with the first World Cup in Africa. But there has been a lot of media hype, and maybe people are reacting to that."

But among those with deeper roots in African soccer, there are lessons in the continent's unimpressive World Cup showing -- and in Ghana's success.

"Ghana doesn't have big-name players," Sono said. "They are working for each other. They are fighting for each other.

"Sometimes we Africans tend to be more individual than collective. I think we should learn from this World Cup that collective is more important than relying on individual name players. We are keeping our fingers crossed for Ghana that they carry on with this beautiful work they are doing."

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