ACCRA, GHANA—“All of us are heartbroken.” So said Ghanaian president John Mahama on Thursday, after Ghana was eliminated from the World Cup soccer tournament.
He’s right. I felt it as soon as I arrived at the airport two days later, while I waited for my bags at the carousel. “We can’t do anything right,” a Ghanaian guy next to me sighed, when there was a delay in unloading our plane’s luggage. “Just like in the World Cup.”
It isn’t just that Ghana lost 2-1 to Portugal, failing to advance to the knockout round after reaching the quarterfinals in 2010. Following a boycott threat by players, who were worried that they wouldn’t receive the money they were owed, Mahama ordered an airlift of $3 million—in cash—to them last week. Then two players were suspended from the team, one for arguing with the coach and the other for allegedly beating a Ghanaian soccer official.
But this week has reminded me, yet again, about the fallacy of linking national character to sports. If Ghana’s team had advanced, nobody would be decrying the soccer squad as a symbol of corruption and inefficiency; instead, it would embody the country’s strength in the face of adversity. All because a few guys kicked a ball into a net, and a few others didn’t?
I’ve already had a cab driver tell me that Ghana’s soccer team is as weak as the national currency, which has plummetted in recent months; a cashier said that Ghanaians lack discipline, just like the footballers did; and a waiter said that the country was “cursed by greed,” which the players displayed by demanding cash up front.
Meanwhile, some Ghanaians suggested that a higher power was punishing the country for its sins. The Internet lit up this weekend with quotes from a self-described “prophet,” who had forecast that Ghana would win, lose, and tie and then advance to the next round.
The prediction looked good in the early going, when Ghana lost to the United States and played to a draw with Germany. But after the team failed to win in its third game, falling out of the tournament, the prophet announced that Ghana’s players had incurred “the wrath of God” by their “indiscipline” and money-grubbing behavior.
Let’s be clear: Ghana does have a serious problem with corruption. According to a 2013 survey by Transparency International, 54 percent of Ghanaians admitted paying a bribe in the previous 12 months. As people here will often tell you, it’s virtually impossible to get anything done—or to get ahead—without greasing a few palms.
And the corruption afflicts everything, including the financial sector, which is why Ghanaians are loath to accept anything other than cash. A friend once told me how he had bought a car by stuffing thousands of bills into a duffle bag, then sitting patiently while the seller counted them. I’ve been teaching here for six years, and I’ve never used a credit card. Too dangerous.
But we trivialize these issues when we tie them to something as fleeting—and, let’s face it, as irrelevant—as an athletic contest. And Ghana’s hardly alone in doing so. Consider its erstwhile rival Nigeria, which joined Algeria as one of only two African nations to advance to the next round.
Inevitably, TV and blogosphere commentators depicted the Nigerian success as a stroke against Boko Haram, the terrorist group that abducted 200 schoolgirls earlier this year. Boko Haram has also been linked to several bomb attacks on Nigerian crowds viewing soccer matches on television.
But was the national team’s strong showing last week a triumph over terrorism? Hardly. The real victory was achieved by the brave Nigerian citizens who continued to huddle around TVs to watch soccer, despite security laws in several states against congregating for that purpose. And that would have been a huge win for the country, even if its team had lost.
If Ghana had advanced in the World Cup, likewise, it would still be an immensely corrupt place. But instead of highlighting that, we’d be congratulating the country for its fast-growing economy, its long string of peaceful elections, and its gains in health and education.
That doesn’t make any sense. In the end, the stories we tell about soccer aren’t really about sports at all; they’re about us. They shouldn’t depend on who wins the game.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at New York University, is teaching in NYU’s summer program in Ghana. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which will be published in Spring 2015 by Princeton University Press.