The Cape Town City Hall is one of those quintessentially lovely colonial-era buildings whose gracefulness comfortably conceals the painful history it’s stone was carved out of. Today two banners honoring Mandela hung draped between the neo-classical columns adorning it’s entrance. On the curved railing in between the two silk screened Mandela’s, perched a small Africa made of red neon glass that hung like a heart that forgot to keep beating because it was so enjoying the opportunity to glow.
When Sulley Muntari twirled around and struck what seemed like an impossible goal for Ghana as the first half closed, a luminescence ran through the thousands of people from around the world assembled in front of the Cape Town City Hall to watch the match together outside on a theater-sized screen. When Sebastian Abreu’s penalty kick found the back of the net for Uruguay, we turned from a collective into a crowd. That is we stopped being together in the same way. Ghana had given us a kind of common hope, the impulse needed for disparate people – for strangers – to share. As the match ended, thousands of people turned around and simply walked away, more alone than we’d been a few moments before.
Leaving the square, I thought of how the game has the capacity to alter some of the very textures of life. This part of why it’s so great. Why it means so much. Why it couldn’t instill the same joy were it not for the loss and the loneliness echoing out from in front of City Hall, down Darling Street, in Cape Town tonight.
I’ve only been in South Africa a few days and as such my impressions are cursory and broken at best. It seems to me however, that what Ghana’s success means to people in South Africa has been misunderstood. “The African World Cup.” The phrase has been voiced over and over. When Bafana Bafana were knocked out of the tournament, proxies were searched for and somehow any African country was framed as an adequate symbol for both the host nation and an entire continent. But the reality here is much more complicated than a continent standing in for a country. People in South Africa started rooting for a number of squads once their own team didn’t advance. For example, Brazil is enormously popular throughout the country and was the team many South Africans started supporting once their team got knocked out. Being here has given me an even larger sense of what Messi means on the global scale, as a number of local people I’ve met are passionately rooting for Argentina because of the joy entailed in watching him play. Ghana frequently was the second team that South Africans were rooting for once their national team was knocked out.
It is true that in South Africa Ghana was widely and enthusiastically supported – but not as some kind of symbol. That wasn’t why so many were so disappointed tonight. The support here shown for Ghana, support shown by South Africans of all races, stems from a sense of affection not symbolism. And affection is at the heart of rooting on any football squad. It’s a core part of what makes the game so wonderful. What I’m trying to say is that the Ghanaian team didn’t garner it’s support because it was some default team for “Africans” to cheer on. Ghana earned it’s support here from the way that it played and the way that play layered onto a sense of local connection amplified by the desire to share in something the world hadn’t seen before. Most of all South Africans cheered on Ghana because they simply love the game and the shape of the heart isn’t a geometry that identity politics can architect, no matter how ornate the design that those politics attempts to create.