JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As the lone African team still in the running to win the first World Cup in Africa, Ghana is picking up a cohort of new supporters among locals.
The vast majority of South Africans initially supported Bafana Bafana, the host country’s national soccer team, but after the team’s early exit many have had to pick a new favorite. For World Cup organizers and South African leaders, who have long sought to present the World Cup as an African rather than a South African event, the choice was easy.
The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela that has a lock on power, said it was thanking the Black Stars “for salvaging the image of the continent in this tournament” after being the only one of six African teams to progress to the second round and also going one step further to reach the quarterfinals stage.
“We are very confident that having gone this far, you are indeed heading for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals on our soil,” said the ANC in a statement. “We are very proud of you; as South Africa and as part of the continent of Africa, you are our pride.”
A dismal 11,000 ticket applications came from African supporters outside South Africa, governing body FIFA revealed before the tournament. A fraction of that number came from Ghana.
But the scene at Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium where Ghana recently defeated the United States in a second-round match told a different story. Ghanaian flags were just as numerous as those waved by Americans — a traditionally patriotic bunch — and vuvuzelas resonated louder whenever Ghana scored.
Ghana flags — red, yellow and green stripes with a black star in the center — show up at games where the team is not even playing. Some South Africans have even renamed the Black Stars “Baghana Baghana.”
Charles Rupare, 36, a Zimbabwean who lives in Johannesburg, said he’s been a fan of the Ghanaians for a long time. He said he knows former Ghana star Abedi Pele personally and particularly admires the youth and enthusiasm of the present team.
“They’ve got heart, they’ve got a passion to play,” Rupare said. “And besides, I love the flag.”
South African celebrities have also joined the Ghana fan club. Marathon runner Hendrick Ramaala told the Sowetan newspaper that “Ghana have been simply the best. It’s the real African World Cup and we are over the moon that a team from the continent is on everybody’s lips.”
The Black Stars have done their best on the field to earn the growing support. For what is only their second World Cup appearance, they have already matched the best performance by an African team — quarterfinals by Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002 — and have the opportunity to do even better if they beat Uruguay on Friday.
As the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957, Ghana occupies a special place in the continent’s history. According to the designer of the country’s flag, the black star in the center represents Africa’s unity and emancipation. Presciently, fans through an online contest before the start of the tournament proposed “The hope of Africa” as the slogan that would adorn Ghana’s team bus.
Ghanaian players have been quick to capitalize on their new status as Africa’s last hope. After Ghana’s 2-1 victory over the U.S., midfielder Andre Ayew even put his country second.
“We fought for the African continent,” Ayew said. “We fought for Ghana.”
While Ghana has gained new supporters, not all South Africans have fallen for the continental solidarity argument. Still now, the ubiquitous flags and rearview mirror socks that decorate cars here are rarely those of Ghana.
Siya Mhlamvu, 26, who sells country flags on a street corner in Johannesburg, said sales of Ghanaian flags have been anything but brisk. He said he sold only four small ones on a recent day and has been forced to lower prices. Mhlamvu said that now that South Africa was eliminated, Ghana was one of his favorite teams but that it had nothing to do with the fact that Ghana was the only African representative left.
“They’ve got quality players,” he said. “They play fast ball.”
Team preferences are complex matters. Some fans support certain teams because they like a particular player’s skills or looks. Others fall for a team’s uniform.
Abeil Kgaphola, 36, said he prefers Brazil because he said their style of play is similar to the South African one. His favorite club team is Pretoria’s Mamelodi Sundowns, a team nicknamed “the Brazilians.”
“I’m gonna go for Brazil,” Kgaphola said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s African or not.”
His friend Jonathan Nkoana, 42, said if Brazil makes it to the final there will be “a sea of yellow” in the stadium even if the opponent is Ghana. He reckons “95 percent” of his compatriots feel the same way.
At least on Friday the support Ghana will get will have as much to do with the identity of its opponent as anything else. During the group stage Uruguay gave Bafana Bafana a drubbing that sank the team’s hopes of advancing. Cosatu, the powerful trade union, urged all South Africans to buy tickets for Friday’s match.
“We need revenge over Uruguay who humiliated Bafana Bafana,” the organization said in a statement. “Nothing more and nothing less — Uruguay must go! Viva African Black Stars!”