They went out fighting. The boys from the United States – new household names like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard – fought a hard match against a stronger, faster Ghana side, and they lost, with one goal against the Ghanaians two.
This time, indeed, was for Africa.
For South African fans watching the game, either in the stadium at Rustenberg, or on television sets at home, in bars, or in tin-walled township shebeens, the reaction was ecstatic. For a country where whites have long ignored soccer as a “black” sport, and where even black South Africans often have negative views of Africans of other nations, it was clear that Ghana had become the new home team. All the aspirations of an entire continent were channeled through the “Black Stars.” Every goal was brilliant, every injury a matter of hot dispute.
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And when the Ghanaians won, an entire nation cheered.
The Sunday Independent called it a “manful victory.” The Sunday Times said, “The first African country to gain independence are again leading the continent’s aspirations.” That’s heady stuff.
It’s tempting to think all of this is a bit overwrought. After all, it’s only a game, right?
Wrong. Sport has a way of expressing unspoken hopes and dreams. When Jesse Owens won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympic games, he single-handedly showed the absurdity of Adolf Hitler’s weird notions of racial superiority. When the South African Springbok rugby team took on the fierce New Zealand All-Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, they (pardon me for giving away the ending of the movie “Invictus”) helped to build hope and pride in the newly de-segregated South African nation through their hard-fought victory.
For the 32,000 American fans who flew across oceans to see the World Cup, this was obviously a sad moment. I was in a sports bar with dozens of them last night, watching the game with a group of journalist friends. The bar was not so much against the US as it was for Ghana, and the Americans had little to cheer about, other than Landon Donovan’s penalty kick securing the US team’s only goal. The American boys played well, better than Italy, France, and dare I say even England at times. But the Ghanaians played better.
Soon, but hopefully not too soon, those Americans will all check out of their tens of thousands of hotel rooms and cabins in natural wildlife reserves, tip thousands of waiters and concierges, and head back to the US with plenty of stories to tell.
They’re hooked now, both as fans of soccer and fans of South Africa.
And that’s not a bad thing.
World Cup 101: