Ghana gone but not forgotten

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CAPE TOWN -- The designers of Cape Town's Sunday Times must have worked overtime to produce this morning's front page. In the upper right corner there is a photo of the Uruguay striker Luis Suarez, but this is not just any headshot. Behind him, in the background, are roiling flames. His eyes and his mouth glow a Mephistophelean red. Out of his forehead protrude a pair of gleaming horns. "HAND OF THE DEVIL," reads the headline, in bold uppercase letters.

Accra, the capital of Ghana, lies some 3,000 miles northwest of Cape Town, and if you were to drive there, you would pass through no fewer than 10 other countries. South Africa recognizes 11 official languages, and Ghana 10, but the only one the nations share is English. It might be difficult for non-Africans to fully grasp just how passionately people across this continent -- particularly South Africans -- embraced the Black Stars of Ghana in the knockout stages of this World Cup, how fully they represented Africa's hopes and dreams for itself. Most Americans would never throw their support behind Mexico, nor Argentines behind Brazil, nor Englishmen behind Germany, simply because there are continent-mates, just as Yankees fans would generally not pull for the Red Sox in the World Series because they're both, you know, from the American League.

But here, it is -- or, it was -- different, and it was deeply authentic. In the days leading up to Friday night's quarterfinal match against Suarez's Uruguay side, Ghana became BaGhana BaGhana. Vuvuzelas became GhuGhuzelas. The Ghanaian bus bore the words, "THE HOPE OF AFRICA." And when Suarez's last second, extra-time, fully intentional goalmouth handball on Friday -- one of the most villainous acts of cheating ever perpetrated in the history of sport, to Africans; an awfully good use of a foul, to Uruguayans and most everyone else -- set off a chain of events that led to Ghana's ouster from this tournament, it was, as yesterday's Cape Argus proclaimed it, "AFRICA'S AGONY." It is now two days later, but here it is as if the knife borne by Suarez's hand has only just pierced the continent's side. It seems as if it will stay there for a long, long time.

Down at Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, near the amphitheater where hundreds gather to watch every game on a big screen, locals tried to explain why it was that they had adopted Ghana's Black Stars as their own, and what it meant. "I don't regard myself as only a South African -- I support the continent," said Daneel Van der Walt, 40, who operates a financial services concern here and in Namibia. "Africans identify with one another. We share challenges. I think we are in a stage at which we recognize that fact that it's up to Africa to realize its own dreams. That makes us interdependent and binds us. We wanted the Cup in Africa, no matter in which particular country it might have ended up."

George Kimweli, a 32-year-old native of Kenya who has lived in Cape Town for ten years and performs as an acrobat on the Waterfront's concourse, thought similarly. "They are one of us," he said. "They showed other African countries the meaning of the World Cup, and their hope of winning it was our hope."

Even South African president Jacob Zuma offered his support, in a recent interview with "In Africa, we are all proud of Ghana," the president said. "They have represented us very well."

Suarez helped to ensure that the fantasy of a trophy being hoisted in Johannesburg next Sunday by African hands would forever remain just that, but it should not be forgotten that success on the field has always been just one small part of the continent's goal for this month-long tournament. The real aim was always to demonstrate to the world that Africa, and South Africa, is now in a position in which it can successfully host the most popular sporting event we have -- "Like a bolt from the blue, South Africa's 2010 World Cup tournament will surprise the world with its accomplishment," former president Thabo Mbeki once said -- and it is now only a week away from completing the achievement of just that.

As the Cup kicked off, doubts remained, and foreigners who had traveled here delighted in telling each other tales of woe about their early experiences here. They joked about how when many South Africans say that something will occur "just now," it means that there is some possibility that it will occur at some point sometime in the future. There were, of course, the vuvuzelas. Reports trickled in from the U.S.-England match in Rustenberg of four-hour post-match waits to board Park and Ride buses ("Park and Ride, my Lord! Park and Ride!" sang many British fans -- who could make up a clever ditty about which type of cereal they'd ingested for breakfast that morning -- to the tune of "Kumbaya.")

At the first match hosted in Cape Town, France versus Uruguay, some famished fans waited in 45-minute lines for the right to purchase a single three-dollar Halaal beef dog, after having waited even longer -- up to an hour -- to pass through security and enter the stadium. Then, before the second Cape Town match -- Italy versus Paraguay -- the security guards went on strike, and the wait to get in was disconcertingly short. Many fans were never screened at all, and some, the local papers reported, entered without the luxury of a ticket.

Now, however, with a week left, concerns such as those have been smoothed over and have faded into the past. The focus is now, almost exclusively, on soccer -- for better and (in the case of the officiating and FIFA's arrogant, bumbling response to it) for worse. It's on the brilliance of the Germans and the Dutch and the Spanish, the tears of the Parguayans, the collapses of the Brazilians and the Argentines, the antics of Diego Maradona, the v-neck sweaters of Joachim Loew, the battle for the Golden Boot between Spain's David Villa, Holland's Wesley Sneijder and Germany's Miroslav Klose and Thomas Mueller.

It is also, of course, on what Suarez did to Ghana -- and that Suarez (appropriately, probably) expressed no remorse afterwards ("Mine is the real hand of God," he said) will contribute to the pain's lingering. It would, quite obviously, have been one of the greatest stories in the history of sports had Ghana beaten Uruguay, and then won two more matches and taken Africa's first World Cup on African soil. In a way, we should all -- Africans and non-Africans alike -- feel disappointed that we won't have the opportunity to witness that event. But that's not how sports work, most of the time. Most of the time, what we dream of happening doesn't happen. You can't script sports. All you can do is get everyone there -- fans and players alike -- put a ball into the mix, and see what comes next. That South Africa, and the African continent, is a week away from having safely, joyously and altogether successfully accomplished that constitutes the true realization of a dream here, for Africans and for the rest of the world.