Sports commentators and pundits would like us to think that Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan went from hero to villain in a second, when he missed a last-minute penalty against Uruguay Friday and his team lost. You might think everything Gyan did for Ghana and Africa in this World Cup — including scoring the goal that eliminated the United States — went down the drain in an instant.
Ghana's loss wasn't the worst of the tournament so far. Brazil, the five-time World Cup champions and tournament favorites, began their samba dance back to Rio De Janeiro only a couple of hours earlier. And former world champions France and England and defending champions Italy didn't make it as far as Ghana. Yet sports commentators want us to believe that Ghana's exit from South Africa was more devastating than that of the soccer powerhouses.
"Devastation for Ghana's Gyan," a Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed. (Compare that to "Dutch Mount Historic Comeback Against Brazil," the headline that followed the tournament's greatest upset earlier in the day).
Throughout the tournament, pundits kept reminding us that Africa had "a disappointing performance." Ghana, they said over and over again, was Africa's only hope. And why was it important to keep hope alive? Because this was the first time Africa has hosted the World Cup, and, for reasons unknown to me, a country from the continent was supposed to win the cup. "A great disappointment for the continent," ESPN commentator Ian Darke said after Ghana's loss. "What a heartbreak for Asamoah Gyan, Ghana and Africa."
But was this really supposed to be Africa's World Cup?
Although we Africans were elated when FIFA announced that the World Cup was coming to our soil, very few of us expected any of our teams to be among the last four, let alone win the tournament. Of course we're proud and ambitious. We went into the tourney just like every one of the other 31 teams, promising to give it our best and hoping for a miracle. But most of us were realistic. We knew that even with divine intervention, we'd still need more help. In fact, I know many Africans who supported African teams but put their money on foreign teams.
What the pundits don't know is that, unlike their opponents, many African players in the World Cup did not grow up in heavily-funded soccer academies. For instance, Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast striker and one of the world's best, did not start playing professionally until he was 21. Despite playing with a fractured arm, Drogba scored against Brazil. (Talk about the fighting spirit of a wounded lion). African teams are full of such late bloomers.
But the world expects them to compete with the best and shine. That's an African story that goes beyond sports. African countries, the few that have been independent for a little over half a century and are struggling with major hardships, are expected to be at par economically, democratically — and now athletically — with older, wealthier nations.
Few critics ever look at the progress Africa has made. Many African countries have shoestring budgets but have churned out millions of highly educated people who can't find jobs. For example, Kenya, my country of birth, had a severe shortage of teachers fifty years ago. (My father was hired to teach in the 1960s, even though he dropped out of high school after one year). But today, less than 50 years after independence, Kenya exports teachers. And those like me who left Africa to study abroad have gone on to compete and excel in countries where children have more educational resources than we had growing up.
Could we look at where the U.S. was 50 years after independence? I'm not suggesting that we should wait 200-plus years. I'm just as frustrated as the next guy by Africa's governance issues, but I know it will take more than 50 years to keep clean a house that has been inundated for centuries. And as the continent grows, so will its soccer.
African players are already so important to European clubs that managers wish the Africa Cup of Nations tournament (our continent's "World Cup") would move to the summer so powerful European teams would not lose key players during the winter, the beginning of the second and most important phase of European soccer.
Asamoah Gyan and Ghana showed the resilience of the Africans. He and other African players will continue to flourish in European leagues. They will come back to once again carry the weight of Africa on their shoulders. They will show the world that an African heart is hard to break.
Edwin Okong'o is a Kenyan-born writer and stand-up comedian who lives in Oakland, California.