Soccer: Africa fills with pride, hope as World Cup looms
By JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press Writer
NAIROBI, Kenya — A dozen young boys stood at the edge of a soccer field, one that looks typically African — patchy grass at the edges, dark red dirt in the middle.
Asked who they thought would win the upcoming World Cup, the boys shouted the familiar names: Brazil! England! Spain!
Last to go was Dennis Njor Oge.
"Nigeria," said the shy 15-year-old.
The other dozen boys burst out in applause.
Why Nigeria? "Because the World Cup is in Africa," he said.
The first World Cup in Africa starts in a little over a month, and soccer fans from Algeria to Zimbabwe are turning their gaze toward host nation South Africa with a swell of continental pride.
Billboards in Liberia read "For the Love of the game. We can't wait. Let's go 2010." In Ivory Coast, a World Cup qualifier, 2010 is the year of the Elephants, the team's mascot. In Cameroon, street signs tout the "Indomitable Lions." Kenya Airways' in-flight magazine calls the coming tournament "Africa's greatest moment of football history."
"Finally the World Cup has come to Africa," said Benjamin Kanga, a teacher reading the sports pages at a news stand in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's capital. "It's about time, because football is a unifying force, a reconciling force, something we Africans need to think about right now."
Africa has six nations in the World Cup, from the continent's Arabic-speaking northern rim, its French-speaking west and English-speaking south. Given a pop quiz as his friends dribbled balls nearby, Oge correctly named five: Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa. He missed only Cameroon.
No African team has made a World Cup final, but fans across the continent note that more African players are playing for European clubs, adding to Africa's skill base. Of the six African teams, bookmakers give Ivory Coast the best odds, but at 30-1 it is far behind the favorites named by the Kenyan boys.
That didn't stop Kanga from predicting victory for Ivory Coast.
"We're going far. We're even going to beat Brazil. You heard it here first," he said. "The Elephants are going to make us proud. They're going to make all of Africa proud."
Africa, particularly its most troubled communities, could use a shot of pride. The continent is the poorest in the world, held back by malnutrition, dirty water, HIV, malaria and corruption.
A recent visit to Nairobi West Prison — where Oge and his friends played on the prison-yard field, and where their parents work — showed how hundreds of thousands of Africans will watch the World Cup.
Sixty people, prison workers and family members, gathered inside a recreation room on a recent Saturday to watch Manchester United and Tottenham. They crowded in front of two 22-inch TVs.
In Akobo, Sudan — described by the U.N. as the hungriest place on earth — men play soccer daily on a field of dust. The town hosts thousands of refugees fleeing violence and seeking food, and people are only marginally aware that the World Cup is coming, said Peter Yien, a resident. He doesn't expect to watch any matches. The town of thousands has only one TV.
It's precisely that kind of a dire scene that has many Africans so filled with pride to host a sporting event that arouses passions around the world. Fans clutching $10 tickets to early matches are already driving toward Africa's southern tip.
"No one expected that one day Africa could host the World Cup, so this is a victory for Africa," said Joana Joaquim Covane, a housewife living in Maputo, Mozambique. "I'm going with my husband to watch at least one of the games in Nelspruit, near our country."
Businesses expect a boost. Momodou Omar Jallow recently bought a new large-screen TV for the video club he owns in Gambia, where the moneymaker is selling a seat in front of a TV for customers who don't own one.
The coach of Algeria's team, Rabah Saadane, said his players feel "a huge pride and huge responsibility" not only to Africa but to the Arab world as well. Algeria is the only World Cup qualifier from an Arab nation.
"The whole Arab world will be looking at us," Saadane said. "And this cup holds special symbolism, because it's being held on our own continent. We don't feel like the home team, but nearly."
Maureen Abbia, a 25-year-old actress in Cameroon, plans to watch all the matches "because this is an African feast."
"Who says this time, Africa, land of wisdom and myth, cannot grab the trophy now that it is competed for on its own soil?" she asked.
The boys at Nairobi West Prison are a little less optimistic, or perhaps their grasp of soccer is a little more worldly. Oge remembers as an 11-year-old watching the 2006 World Cup final with his mother, when Italy beat France. His favorite player is Rio Ferdinand, a Briton on Manchester United. Oge's friend, 15-year-old Kevin Obadha, likes Brazil's Ronaldinho.
Like Oge, Obadha pegs Nigeria as Africa's best team. Can they make it to the final?
"I don't think so," he said.