ACCRA, Ghana -- At the Jamestown fishing village, seven men are struggling with a boat stretched across smooth sand. The boat rests on pipes, allowing it to move across the dry land. They heave back and forth, communicating their movements to coax the 20-foot wooden boat, named Good Name, from land to sea. They are all slight but muscular, their loose clothing failing to conceal their definition. One wears an AC Milan shirt, another Manchester United, and a third Inter Milan.
Good Name is a colorful vessel, liberally adorned with blue, yellow and red accents, powered by a 50-horsepower motor. The fresh paint job is easily its most admirable attribute; the rest of it gives off a homemade-canoe vibe, except it won't be used for lazy lake paddling. The men will take Good Name deep into Atlantic waters, fighting to stay on board in the rough deepwater waves. Overnight, they will nestle between the planks, lying on the floor of the ship. They say they will be able to sleep, despite the vicious ocean rocking Good Name across its axis, which seems like trying to sleep in the middle of a tossing salad. If all goes well, they will return tomorrow with lots of fish. They take with them only a little food and water and the clothes on their backs, protecting their bodies with the gods Balotelli and Van Persie.
Sometimes, these men will go as far as Lagos, some 250 miles down the coast, on this very same boat and motor. They will wear the same kits, take the same basic provisions and hope to return with larger and more bountiful fish. The children in the village do not go to school. They may never learn to read or write, but they learn to fish. "If you are born here, you live here," Ochani Neequwae, the leader of the Jamestown Fishermen Council, tells me. A deep scar slashes across his cheek from his nose. He doesn't smile, ever. "And you will die here."
Women sit in front of their shacks, gutting and preparing the fish. Scattered radios play the Argentina-Iran match commentary. They do not sell the fish directly to markets, nor to wholesalers. Men will come and buy the fish, selling them to other men, who then sell them to other men. By the time the fish reach a mouth, they will have been resold several times, mostly to benefit the wealthy, who extract marginal profits each step of the way. Even though fish is fairly cheap in Accra -- tilapia costs the equivalent of a dollar or two at the market -- most of that money never reaches the Jamestown fishing village, and it shows. When the men return from a voyage, they will simply wait for the next embarkation. As Neequwae says, "All they know is fish."
Leisure in Jamestown is largely a myth, with one exception. Towards the edge of the village, there is a shack slightly larger than the others, completely enclosed with a rickety, broken door. The shack has a misspelled sign: "Old Traford." Below the sign, a chalkboard lists a series of games and times. This is Jamestown's soccer viewing center. Across the street, several kids play soccer on a full-size dirt pitch. From the top of the Jamestown lighthouse, one can see several games going on at once in every direction.
It's Saturday, and Ghana is playing Germany later tonight, in a monumentally important game for the Black Stars. Ghana was drawn into the group of death with three western teams: Portugal, Germany and the United States. After losing to the U.S. in the opening match, Ghana needs at least a tie, no small feat against one of the best teams in the world. Rumors of protests and mutiny among the players plague the media. The team seems closer to falling apart than to pulling an upset.
The village will watch the match on the pitch across the street from the viewing center, in front of a giant projector screen. Chairs are already being set up, even though the match is not for several hours. There are World Cup viewing centers like this one all over the country. The government has signed a contract with a company called Evolution, which hires subcontractors to put together each viewing center. Kojo Poku and Elem Lumor run Big Ideaz Consult, an event logistics business that was hired to erect three screens for Accra viewing centers -- including the biggest, a 30-foot-by-10-foot screen in the Accra mall parking lot, where a thousand fans show up for every Ghanaian match. This site also has a "fun center," which includes games, booths and promotional tents to keep people entertained between matches. Poku and Lumor couldn't say how many viewing centers there are across the country, and they wouldn't disclose their fee: "It is difficult to say." They claim they took a discount because they want to support the Black Stars. (As we spoke, $3 million in cash was in transit to Brazil to pay the players their full bonuses and prevent them from striking before their final group game.)
Oxford Street in Central Accra -- another government-contracted site -- is a party even before the match begins, with many fans dancing their anxiety away to hip-hop beats blasting from the main speakers. Ghana plays with the skill and fearlessness people crave against a world soccer power. In a restaurant overlooking the Oxford Street screen, the chefs come out of the kitchen to monitor the match, resulting in some overcooked dinners.
In most parts of the world, it's as if everyone learned how to celebrate a goal from the same manual: arms up, clapping, whoop-whooping and whatnot. It's distinct from everyday expressions of joy, a reminder that there is some part of the soul that soccer cannot touch. Ghana must have not received that celebration manual. Each Ghana goal -- but particularly the second one -- is celebrated with such a raw joy that it transcends soccer. Men rip off their shirts, women shriek with a "You're the next contestant on The Price Is Right!" level of happiness -- but there are no cameras for which to embellish. It's not just strangers hugging one another, but brothers and sisters sharing a consciousness. When Ghana takes a 2-1 lead, the restaurant manager grabs and shakes his employees one by one before running out of the restaurant altogether, never to return.
The match ends in a draw, keeping Ghana alive, although they will need Portugal to win or draw the next day against the U.S. More importantly, the Black Stars played very well against a soccer powerhouse. The post-match show on SuperSport, the South African sports channel, debates whether this was the match Africa needed to prove the continent can compete against the best teams in the world, an odd question since the world had just seen an African team do exactly that. This is why every time another African team plays, Ghanaians root for them, too. Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon goals are celebrated with about half the fervor as Ghanaian ones, which puts it somewhere near "you just pitched a no-hitter" on the happiness spectrum. When I ask people why this is, the response is always the same: During qualifying, nobody is your friend, but for the World Cup, Africa is one.
African soccer has an unfortunate history of being looked down upon by the Western world. Brian Clough, the legendary English manager, was once quoted regarding why the British have more national teams (four) than Africa has World Cup slots (two at the time of Clough's remarks from a field of 24 teams; now five out of 32): "Think about it, a bunch of spear throwers who want to dictate our role in soccer. They still eat each other up…" In Soccer Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper wrote, "Europeans are used to treating Africans as beggars with nothing to offer." This is the historical impetus for Africans latching onto the World Cup, as a stage to demonstrate their worthiness of the West's respect.
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About 80 miles west of Accra lies Cape Coast, one of the first colonized areas in West Africa. The drive from Accra to Cape Coast passes by many small subsistence villages where people sell their leftovers -- ears of corn, coconuts or roasted nuts -- by the roadside for pennies. Instead of billboards, tiny shacks have been painted with logos and color schemes for the regional telecom companies. Coca-Cola signs abound. In almost every village, men wear soccer shirts, and a dirt field has been cleared adjacent to the road, with three sturdy tree branches fashioned together to form rudimentary goal posts. Some of the fields are empty; others are buzzing, with fullbacks making overlapping runs and strikers controlling a ball off their chests.
In Cape Coast, the decaying, five-century-old castles (former slave export stations) overlook fishing villages much like Jamestown, where women dissect fish and men wear European soccer kits while tending to boats. Not far away, a small coat of oil washes up against the jagged shore. The government recently authorized transnational oil companies to tap the Jubilee Oil Field, some 40 miles out to sea. The local press accuses the government of selling the country's national resources to foreign interests. The government-owned oil company has a 13.6 percent share of the field; the rest has been sold off to British and North American oil companies. Ghana just gave Tullow Oil -- a British corporation and the largest Jubilee shareholder -- permission to burn more natural gas to increase oil production, so they can meet their annual profit projections. Meanwhile, the government has to enact rolling blackouts to accommodate an electricity shortage. Ghana faces a budgetary crisis due in part to overinvestment in its burgeoning oil industry, and there are fuel shortages in Accra. By my final day in Ghana, gas lines were so long they were holding up traffic, with the city's legion of taxi drivers gathering at gas stations late at night to hoard fuel.
On the picturesque beach in Cape Coast, a group of children kick a ball around. They approach me and ask if I want to play. I jump in the center of the circle, and a game ensues in which I must gain possession. Although I am twice the size of these children, I lunge and dash without getting a toe on the ball. The children fool me with stepovers, back heels and quick toe pokes. Each kid unpredictably mixes his moves, displaying a vast catalogue of trickery. As I run towards a child wearing a Wayne Rooney kit who just received the ball, he uses his right foot to fake a pass to his right, then loops his foot back over the ball, sneaks his toes underneath it and flicks his foot upward and forward, chipping it over my head to another child, who then effortlessly settles the ball with one touch and waits for me to make my way towards him, before poking the ball to his neighbor. Their movements are subtle, sudden yet effortless. It goes on like this for several minutes, until finally an errant pass allows me to sprint and fetch the ball. In the next round, every kid knocks the ball to me, waiting for my error, which comes quickly and with enough clumsiness that it may as well have been executed by one of the wild pigs strolling nearby. I'm back in the middle, exhausted and beaten. They are toying with me.
After the game ends, the children gather around me and ask my name, where I'm from and what I do for a living. They listen intently, grab at my arms and insist I memorize and recite every single one of their names. Three are named Francis, and four Joseph. One of the Josephs interrupts the others and asks me to buy him water, for he is thirsty. I tell him I left all my money at the hotel, which is true. He tells me to go get some; he's really thirsty.
A few hundred feet behind the beach, another government viewing center has been set up. I go there at night, and a few dozen villagers have gathered around to watch the Cameroon-Brazil match. Like the rest of Africa, they're disappointed in Cameroon's play. Drawn into a group with Brazil, Mexico and Croatia, they'd faced a tough road -- but as I heard after the Ghana-Germany match, the people care most about maintaining respectability, about Africa's teams being able to play with the very best. Cameroon failed them.
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Back in Accra, I'm watching the U.S.-Portugal match at an outdoor cafe. I receive dirty glares and sideways glances at an unnerving frequency. The U.S. has just tied the game 1-1 with a ludicrous curl by Jermaine Jones. I am restraining myself, afraid of what a proper celebration might bring. If the U.S. wins, Ghana won't make it out of the group stage. If the U.S. draws or loses, Ghana is still alive.
An older man with gray hair and a large stomach sits at the table next to me. His short-sleeve buttoned shirt waves in the breeze, and his beer perspires far more than he does. He speaks a Pidgin language, a linguistic bridge between English and various local dialects. Every time I lament a bad pass or cheer a good run, he emotes. He rants, gesturing wildly, looking at me the entire time. I can't understand him, but with the game in tense moments, I hardly care.
The U.S. takes the lead on a Clint Dempsey goal, and I throw caution into the humid breeze, jumping up and down, pumping my fists. The old man grows wilder and louder, engaging my guide with what appears to be very harsh words. Some teenagers sit to his left, heads held in their hands while pointing at the TV, arguing about who they can blame for the goal. Nobody is happy except for me.
I think back to what someone told me when I first arrived in Ghana, a few days after their loss to the U.S. The entire country was silent, mourning what seemed to be a catastrophic loss. At the time, I thought he meant that they mourned in the same way that any passionate fan base laments an important loss, but this simply isn't true. Just as their celebrations seem to be a pure expression of the soul, soccer is theirs in a way that it is not anybody else's, especially not America's. They have adopted it from their former colonialists and wedged it into their established ways, merging it with a culture caught between modernity and tradition, like a fish struggling for life 20 feet below the surface. Soccer is a distraction, a tool, an everlasting fuel, a unifying force and a perpetual antagonist. And now, just like Ghana's vast oil fields, America has decided that it wants soccer, too, and its resources make up for any lack of passion. For Ghana, it is another crushing realization that everything they have may not be enough, that something they love with every fiber can be supplanted by a Western whimsy.
Of course, the game doesn't end in a U.S. victory. When Portugal scores its last-minute goal, I adopt the teenagers' defeated posture, while they happily accept the role of jubilant victors, registering at "my favorite team just won the Super Bowl" on the happiness spectrum. My guide and I walk to the car, and I think about all the Americans who couldn't care less if the U.S. had beaten Ghana a week prior or vice versa. My guide tells me what the old man said: "When did the U.S. start playing soccer and learn to score goals like that? They are devils."