By Dayo Olopade
Sunday, July 11, 2010; B05
JOHANNESBURG -- The first African World Cup didn't belong to Africa, at least not on the soccer field. Of the six African nations that made it to the quadrennial tournament, five fell early -- to indiscipline, tough competitors and heartbreaking missed opportunities. The plucky and focused Black Stars from Ghana were a bright spot for the continent, but when Sunday's final is over, the new FIFA champion will not be African.
Still, winning games isn't everything. For one month of one South African winter, the tournament brought an international celebration to a continent more widely known for malnourished bodies, grandstanding leaders and the ravages of AIDS. Rather than indigence, the world saw balls sailing into the net, crisp tackles, sweat. Ten gleaming stadiums and the collective warmth of 50 million South Africans offered thousands of football pilgrims the time of their lives.
In a year that marks five decades of independence for 17 African countries, from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the cup doubled as an anniversary party. "Just the fact that African teams can compete, defeat and be defeated on the world's stage is wonderful," Carmen Arendse, a South African psychologist, said while watching Ghana's quarterfinal match against Uruguay.
There's an earlier sentiment that still rings true, as well. In a 1960 speech, Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese prime minister, made a remark that fits the occasion: "We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom."
Even before I had my passport stamped in Lagos late last month, airport ads for telecommunications giant MTN reminded me what the cup means for the continent. With images of star footballers Michael Essien of Ghana, Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon and John Obi Mikel of Nigeria ran the tournament's slogans: "Let's go Africa." "United we score." "Today is a good day to be African."
And it was a good month. While the petty crime that is common in Johannesburg didn't disappear, there were no major incidents of violence at the fan parks or outdoor screening areas. Dignitaries such as former president Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not to mention Mick Jagger, came to see the beautiful game at the bottom of the world. In every African city I visited, a raucous, family atmosphere prevailed. At game time in Lagos, traffic cleared, strangers crowded around television sets indoors and out, and alongside the news of the world, chatty conversations on the state of play looped constantly on the radio.
In Johannesburg, the "Jabulani" ball, designed specially for the tournament, graced pickup games outside bars and on dirt patches by the highway. In the poor and sprawling township of Khayelitsha, black South Africans live far from the shadow of Cape Town's shiny new stadium -- but during Ghana's fatal match against Uruguay, several men and even a few women celebrated by sporting jerseys from Brazil, South Africa, Liverpool and beyond.
The World Cup didn't just feel universal -- it was. According to market research company InsideView, some 80 percent of the world's population has watched "at least some part" of the competition -- and 600 million are expected to tune in to Sunday's battle between Spain and the Netherlands.
The global spotlight also created some unexpected common ground. The Black Stars may have done more for continental solidarity than staunch pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkrumah, the father of contemporary Ghana. The team was adopted wholesale by South Africans, whose squad had been eliminated, and by millions more Africans on the continent and in the diaspora who hoped for a showing to rival the great footballers of Europe and South America. In Observatory, a student neighborhood in Cape Town, fans like me who normally identify as Nigerian, Kenyan, Congolese or South African chanted, "Up Ghana!"
When the team's best chance at making history clanged off the crossbar in the closing seconds of its quarterfinal, the upbeat drone of vuvuzelas gave way to groans. "We had the chance," said one Zimbabwean observer who backed the Ghanaian squad. "We just didn't execute."
That is the simplest explanation for the disappointments among the African teams competing this year. And they perhaps mirror the disappointments that have stalled the continent's political and economic progress. Similar to the lack of strong primary and secondary education systems on the world's youngest continent, not enough attention has been paid to youth development in soccer. The sub-Saharan teams' reliance on foreign coaches with little skin in the game echoes the broad mistrust in local leadership and institutions. And the perennial "brain drain" among the smartest African graduates correlates with the flight of top talent to European soccer clubs.
Perhaps fittingly, Ghana's breakout performance came after its investment in a championship under-20 team and two years of training under its (foreign) coach -- and despite being without its star player, Michael Essien of British club Chelsea.
Though athletic victories have eluded African fans, progress has not. In South Africa, many of the 44,000 police officers deployed to watch over the throng of foreign visitors -- Argentine and German, British and Brazilian -- will stay in their positions, armed with better skills, equipment and federal coordination. The upgrades to the transit and telecommunications infrastructures will last as well. And though the "white elephant" stadiums in less-trafficked towns such as Nelspruitt and Polokwane will be a sorry reminder of FIFA's misplaced zeal, regional tourism is slated to rise -- and South African President Jacob Zuma has declared that "after this, employment will go up."
While it may be decades before less-wealthy African countries are prepared to host the tournament, the World Cup has been an essential engine for African self-confidence. This is particularly salient in South Africa, whose racial traumas still live in plain sight. As fellow competitors Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon celebrate their half-century of independence (Ghana broke with Britain in 1957, and Algeria with France in 1962), South Africa is catching up in terms of full freedoms. De facto segregation by race and income persists -- especially on the scrubbed beaches of Cape Town.
Of course, spending money on elaborate new stadiums doesn't address the economic disparities that can inflame tension, but the very sight of white Afrikaners rooting for black strikers is a salve of sorts. "Apartheid consciousness for white society is rugby or cricket," says Gareth Colenbrander, a Western Cape resident who supported the Ghanaian team. "2010 consciousness is football."
Before Ghana's Black Stars departed South Africa, they greeted thousands of fans in Soweto and had lunch with former president Nelson Mandela. Though they weren't leaving as champions, they were leaving as heroes.
For many others I encountered, the official outcome was beside the point. Africa wasn't just the world's poorest continent -- it could compete. Perhaps the best assessment came from a wistful Ghanaian fan, who passed on a Zulu phrase to carry home: Hamba phambili. Move forward.
Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for the Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.
From the archives: For a look at why America should embrace soccer and the World Cup, see David Rothkopf's "Our kind of game" (June 13).