The World Cup is over. The Octopus was right and I imagine is now being head-hunted by mystics, governments and investment banks on seven continents. For me, though, the World Cup ended when Ghana were knocked out by Uruguay last Friday. I watched that match with a displaced Ghanaian and must say that I got caught up in the whole ‘Ghana carries the hopes of a continent’ rhetoric.
For those of you who don’t care about football or didn’t care about that match… here’s the short version. Ghana was the only African team that made it to the knock-out stages of this year’s World Cup. They beat USA in their second-round match to set up a quarter-final meeting with Uruguay. It went to extra time and in the last minute a Uruguayan player deliberately hand-balled a shot that was heading into their goal. This led to a penalty for Ghana. Asamoah Gyan (their go-to man for spot kicks) stepped up… and missed. Missed! Extra time ended, a penalty shoot-out followed and Uruguay won.
For most of the next day my girlfriend would find me just staring off into space, playing and replaying Asamoah Gyan’s botched penalty in my head. After some of that real grief (!) had subsided, though, I found another image had made a more lasting impression – that of a woman in the stadium holding up a placard that said ‘Ghana! Make Africa Proud’. It was an admonition that obviously carried with it no malice, but something about that did not sit right with me. Did Ghana really need to win a World Cup quarter-final to make Africa proud?
It reminded me of Nigeria’s win against Argentina in the 1996 Olympics. At the time we were nearing the 40th anniversary of our independence from British rule and there were a lot of people who felt like the gold medals for the Super Eagles and the heroic manner of the victory (coming back from a goal behind twice, beating Brazil with a Golden Goal in the semi-final) was just the first step in our coming of age as a nation. There were others who suggested that it reflected pretty poorly on a country if after 40 years of self-rule the best we could say was that our football team had won something. At the time their voices were drowned out but their words have rung truer and truer in the 16 years that have gone by.
My point is simply this: Ghana already makes Africa proud. It’s a stable democracy with an economy that until the global economic downturn hit in 2008 had been growing steadily for almost a decade. It has a Freedom of Information Act. By the CIA’s count a much lower proportion of Ghana’s population live below the poverty line than countries like Ecuador, pretty much all of the ‘Stans, other African peers like South Africa and, yes, Nigeria.
It’s not perfect, but progress is most certainly being made.
My feeling about that placard went to heart of my feeling about the whole World Cup. It’s great that there’s something positive to say about a world-class event taking place in Africa. And it’s great that all of the naysayers who didn’t believe it would work have been proven wrong. But when it comes down to it, we’re talking about a football tournament here. We’re talking about 22 millionaires ruining a lawn for bragging rights.
And if a football tournament is still the most positive thing we have to talk about with regard to Africa, then something is wrong. Wrong with with West’s perception of Africa and, much more importantly, African nations’ perceptions of themselves.