Last Sunday evening, in the final minutes of play, Ghana's Sulley Muntari scored a dramatic goal to defeat visiting Guinea. Seven hours later, at 3 a.m., we could still hear the horns and revelers on the street outside of our house.
And believe it or not, the party has just begun.
Mr. Muntari's heroics came in the opening match of the three-week Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament, which Ghana is hosting. The entire country has been gripped by "football fever," as the newspapers call it. Taxis and buses all fly the Ghanaian flag, honking incessantly as they pass. Wherever you look – on shirts, neckties, scarves, hats, and even earrings – you see the bright national colors of red, green, and yellow.
To an American, the most refreshing part of this celebration is the apparent absence of national jingoism or chauvinism. The Ghanaians are intensely patriotic, of course, but you don't hear people talking about how much better they are than other countries.
Quite the contrary: the airwaves and papers are filled with demands for the nation to better itself, especially with the tournament placing Ghana in a world spotlight. Please don't litter, a television news reporter told us last week; please use proper food hygiene; please conserve water; please drive more carefully.
And please, most of all, pray for the soccer team. In Ghana, a deeply devout and increasingly Christian country, religious fervor merges easily with football fever. "Sometimes one is tempted to believe that God is a Ghanaian," a local newspaper exulted, the morning after Ghana's first-round victory. "For the very spiritual, it was the hidden hand of God at work or simply the miraculous."
But even here, Ghanaians exude gratitude rather than arrogance. They all want God to shine upon the team, naturally, but there's no suggestion that He ought to do so. I even heard one television reporter urge viewers to pray for all of the African nations, lest anyone get left out.
In public interviews, the players steer away from comments that might sound smug or conceited. We need to work hard, they say; we need to stay focused; and, with God's grace, we need to remain healthy. But I haven't heard any athlete promise to score a goal or to shut down an opponent, which is the type of thing you hear in the United States all the time.
And you'll probably hear even more of it during the next two weeks, as the hype for Super Bowl XLII intensifies. Football players often predict victory, waving index fingers in the air or thumping their chests. And on game day, as in Ghana, I suspect that many will kneel in prayer and ask God for the same.
The difference is that Americans actually believe they deserve it. The US was founded by people who imagined that God had assigned them a special destiny; they would be a city on the hill, lighting the way for everybody else.
At its best, this ideal has inspired Americans to fight for the universalideals in our founding documents – liberty and justice for all. But at its worst, it has tricked us into thinking that we're actually better than the rest of the world.
In 1945, near the end of the world's most destructive war, George Orwell drew a now-famous distinction between patriotism and nationalism.
Patriotism, Orwell wrote, is simply a "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life." It was inward-looking and generally beneficial, insofar as it connected humans through shared communities. But nationalism is aggressive and outward-looking, always aiming to enhance the power of one community over another. Patriots and nationalists both love their countries, but only nationalists insist that their own country is – or should be – the superior one.
That's what Americans are wont to believe, given the burden of our history. But perhaps we could take a few cues from the Ghanaians, who manage to celebrate their country without diminishing others. As the Africa Cup of Nations tournament continues, I'll root hard for Ghana. And no matter who wins, I'll be grateful for the lesson.