Ghana's Black Stars
Eleven Men Carrying a Continent
Sean Wilsey, The New York Times/Candide's Notebooks, June 25, 2006
IN 1990, Pelé predicted that an African country would soon win the World Cup. Sixteen years, two Brazilian and two European champions later, Ghana, ranked 48th in the world, behind even Trinidad and Tobago, has defeated both the Czech Republic, ranked second, and the United States, ranked fifth, and will meet Brazil (ranked, reasonably, first) on Tuesday.
Ghana is the lone African nation still in contention. During the Ghanaians' crucial game against the United States, as the American team struggled to come back but couldn't score despite some beautiful deliveries into the six-yard box, I found myself thinking that the situation was weirdly paradoxical, that both the United States and Ghana needed the same thing — a small, wily, dexterous sort of player up front, a player who could whirl and tap those passes into the goal for the Americans, a player who could dance through the soon-to-be-faced Brazilian defense for Ghana — and this player existed. His name is Fredua Koranteng Adu, but he wasn't playing on either side.
Seventeen-year-old Freddy Adu was born in Ghana and lives and plays professionally in the United States. Ghana's coach offered him a spot but Adu turned it down in order to be eligible for the American squad. Then he failed to make the cut, supposedly because he's too young, too short, too small — and it was too late to change his mind, even if he had wanted to join his homeland Black Stars.
Few sane Americans would give up United States citizenship for Ghanaian citizenship. Why play soccer for a nation that had never qualified for the World Cup before now? On a continent where just six years ago a national team (Ivory Coast's) was locked up in a military prison for two days as punishment for losing in the African Nations Cup?
But four years from now, when Adu will almost certainly be on the American squad, the World Cup finals will be held in Africa for the first time and Ghana will have the always-compelling continental advantage. What looks like sanity today might turn out to be lack of imagination.
Shortly after the 1990 World Cup I went to Africa with an Italian tour group that used me as an English translator, and I experienced a sort of soccer epiphany. I was in Zambia, where the main industry is copper mining and the main pastime kicking a ball (every copper mine has a team). I tried very hard to become semi-assimilated. I could call someone a liar in the local dialect—"Boza!"— and I ate dinner, with my hands, out of a plastic bucket shared with half a dozen villagers.
We talked about soccer. Zambia was about to play Zaire in the neighboring nations' first post-World Cup match, an early African Nations Cup qualifier, and the country was full of outsized optimism. The future of soccer was going to be in Africa. Zambia and Zaire were ascendant.
A few days later I was in the capital, Lusaka. Having missed the big match by a day (Zaire won), I decided to watch a league game between a mining town team, the Konkola Blades of Chililabombwe, and the Red Arrows, the Ministry of Finance squad. These were the young players who had a chance to make the next Zambian national team and win the World Cup in 1994. Or that's what Pelé and I thought.
I took a cab to a stadium outside the city, bought a ticket and sat in the concrete bleachers. As they filled up, the space around me remained empty, in a zone some 20 feet across, like a penalty box. Subconsciously, I felt like a goalie, but I didn't really think much about it.
The Arrows wore red (I think) and the Blades wore blue. The game started, I got caught up in the fever, and ignored the empty space. This was attacking soccer, running soccer, the sort of soccer you see when both teams want to win but neither has an advantage of age or experience or talent or fan support. The players were fun and serious and beautiful. No score at the half. I went to the bathroom, figuring I might lose my seat, and not caring: I could squeeze in somewhere. When I came back, the empty space was still there, so I sat in its center again.
A few minutes after the restart, at around the 50-minute mark, I noticed a shift in the crowd's attention, a collective wavering that amplified into a change in focus. Suddenly everyone on the other side of the field was looking in my direction, and the rows in front of me started turning around, too. Soon even the closest spectators, right at the edge of my empty radius, turned and looked at me. Then they started moving away. The whole stadium was looking at me, and I couldn't pretend it wasn't happening. I started to feel uncomfortable.
I mumbled "hello" — "boza" seemed like a bad idea — to a man who was looking straight at me but for some reason wouldn't quite focus his eyes on mine. He didn't answer.
Then I saw something in my peripheral vision, close to my back. I turned around. A tall man in a yellow track suit was looking over my head at the game. The peripheral object was his knee. I was virtually in his lap. Where had he come from? On either side of him sat several other men in identical track suits, their knees equally impressive. I'd been so engrossed in the game that I hadn't noticed their arrival. More began to sit beside me.
This was the victorious Zairian national soccer team. They had stuck around Lusaka, come to see the local league game and now sat remarkably still, with no tension in their bodies; a stillness that seemed to come of spending their lives running. I stared. They didn't care. Everybody else was staring, too. When they'd arrived and sat down around me — the space had apparently been reserved for them — the crowd applauded. We all watched the game together. I have never been in better company. I was on a national team.
When the Arrows and the Blades ended the game in a scoreless tie, the crowd jumped onto the field. As the Zairian national team stood to go, a boy in shorts kicked the game ball into the goal, then leaped in celebration.
Perhaps Freddy Adu will lead the United States to victory in South Africa four years from now. But he will never have the experience of playing on the Ghanaian national team on the continent of his birth. Nor, I suspect, will he have an experience like I did that day in Lusaka. He will not sit with members of his team and feel a sense of national and continental hopefulness moving through a crowd, a city and an entire populace. It was my own brief encounter with the particular beauty and exhilaration of African soccer that turned me into that very strange creature: an American soccer fan.