Greg Lalas
Monday December 7th, 2009

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Abdullah makes his living as a tour guide on Lamu Island, a palm-tree paradise in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast from the heaving port city of Mombassa. Short and bearing a wild, rheumy eye, he's as mellow as a beach bum. But mention soccer, and Abdullah becomes as excited as a kid on a sugar high.

The sport came up while touring Lamutown, the island's administrative seat, a few days ago. I saw the Liverpool FC Barber Shop, complete with the club's shield on its dangling shingle, and I wanted a photo of it.

"You are a football fan?" he asked. "The Americans have a very good team. They beat the Spaniards."

Abdullah started listing American players, deciding that "the one at Everton" -- goalkeeper Tim Howard -- was the best one and that "Dempsey at Fulham" -- pronounced by Abdullah as "fool hamm" -- was good, too.

Later, I asked Abdullah if he thought an African team could win the World Cup this time.

"Yes. Why not?"

This seems to be the prevailing mood here: Why not an African team? People I have talked to here about the World Cup know that Spain and Brazil are very strong, of course, but the feeling is very widespread that African teams will not only have a "homefield" advantage, but also will be able to exploit it and see it bear real fruit. This World Cup is re-igniting the feeling of pan-Africanism in some ways.

This is amazing to me, considering the cultural variety on the continent. What does an Ivorian or a Cameroonian have in common with a South African or an Algerian? They are as different as are a Canadian and a Nicaraguan or a Greek and a Dane.

And yet, many of the people I have met speak about how an African team will succeed next summer because the tournament is being held in Africa. "The home fans will make a big difference," a Kenyan development worker told me, ignoring the fact that many of the tickets sold so far have gone to Americans and Europeans.

Most people point to Ivory Coast, even after it was drawn into the Group of Death. Simply having Didier Drogba seems to make the Elephants everyone's favorites to win the trophy, at least, in the eyes of the Kenyans and Southern Sudanese. The Chelsea striker is a continent-wide phenomenon on par with the wondrous Ghanaian playmaker Abédi Pelé.

If not the Ivorians, the Ghanaians. Michael Essien is revered and feared, and the Black Stars are one of the best-supported sides in Africa. Their fans will travel to South Africa, a Ghanaian friend tells me.

Abédi Pelé himself has belief, if not in Ghana, then in someone from the continent. "We definitely will have one African team that goes far," he said recently, "and when I say 'goes far,' I mean as far as raising the trophy. When I make this prediction, people laugh, but I believe it."

But the traveling Ghanaians, Ivorians, or Algerians won't be enough to fill up any one stadium in South Africa. So the home-field advantage is manifested in a pan-African sensibility, and even in the sense that everyone, even non-Africans, will be rooting for the African teams.

This is clear where I am right now, sitting at the Java House coffee lounge at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. This is the ultimate East African melting pot: British, French and American ex-pats, Lebanese and Indian businessmen, a few UN volunteers and locals from across East Africa. We all sit at the Java House and wait for our flights to Amsterdam, Kampala, Dubai and others.

We nosh on snacks, surf the Web and watch the two flat-screen TVs perched in the corners. Usually, CNN International is on. However, now it's the World Cup draw.

Strangely, getting the draw on at all required a little coercion. At the start time, 8 p.m. local, someone switched the satellite to a Spanish telenovela dubbed into English. A bunch of us immediately bum-rushed the manager like Uruguayans surrounding a referee after a penalty call. An Australian bloke put it best: "I think your television is broken. If it was working properly, it would be showing the draw."

They worked it all out and we are now settled in to watch Sepp Blatter, Charlize Theron and the rest of the glitterati in Cape Town.

As the names are pulled, gasps and cheers flare up from various pockets in the room. France's group elicits chuckles from a French couple. A Korean guy nods his head, satisfied that his team can get by Nigeria and Greece to come in second behind Argentina in Group B. The English are all smiles. And so on.

The Africans feel relatively confident, except for South Africa, of course. "I think Cameroon and Ghana are in good shape," a Ugandan man tells me. "Nigeria is OK, too. Only Côte d'Ivoire is in a very difficult section. But Portugal is not so good now and Drogba can score goals."

Can Côte d'Ivoire win it all?

"Yes, I think they can," he replied. "They are African and they are playing in Africa. This is important."

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