I originally intended for this post to be an assessment of my own mixed feelings going into Saturday’s game against Ghana. I planned on discussing how my joy at a U.S. victory would be tinged with a little sadness if we eliminate the last African team in a tournament that many hoped would be a bit of a coming out party for the host continent’s teams.

However, as I was typing, another realization began creeping into my brain. Is it unfair to even group the African sides together in such a manner? More than any other continent, with the obvious exception of Australia, the nations of Africa are often lumped together without regard for individual countries, let alone tribes or ethnicities. As with many issues all over the world, there has been a tendency to diagnose Africa’s problems as a whole rather than addressing conflict, poverty, and disease on a local level. This is definitely difficult to do, but I think it’s exacerbated by a cultural willingness to place the entire continent, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, into one neat category.

Certainly, fans and players from all of the African teams in this year’s Cup have mentioned the importance of this tournament for all of Africa, and there is undoubtedly a sense of continental pride that just isn’t apparent here in North America. I don’t think that talking about this World Cup as a great moment for all of Africa, or talking about how the Africans are faring, or even discussing Ghana as Africa’s last hope is necessarily wrong. I just think it’s symptomatic of a broad classification system that is sometimes unfair.

Look, it’s inevitable for us to use geographical titles to talk about teams in a tournament defined by nations. I even wrote jokingly last week that part of the fun of the World Cup or the Olympics was being able to discuss countries so cavalierly. It would be hypocritical and unrealistic for me to claim that we can’t group teams by their continents. Although we tend to do it the most with Africa, it’s also common to talk about the South American teams as well as the Asian teams. That’s not bad in and of itself, although I do think it’s racially connected and tied to the levels of cultural ignorance (we don’t tend to group Slovakia, Portugal, and France as generally “European”). The real problem is when we’re unable to move past these shallow labels to any real interaction and understanding.

Why am I even talking about this? Because of the way this World Cup has been talked about as a watershed moment. Because of the celebrations that have ensued at Africa being able to host such a large international event. Because of what has been said about this tournament’s potential to have a lasting effect.

I understand that soccer can only do so much, and claims about sports changing lives or societies are usually overblown. Sports can’t change GDPs, or disease-rates, or any other realities outside of themselves. However, they can change attitudes if they serve as a medium through which we discuss other areas of life. That’s why, despite my own desire to see the African sides succeed, this shouldn’t just be about winning. Neither is it just about showing the world that Africa can host a World Cup. After all, South Africa is far removed from Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and many of the other nations that have suffered the worst conflicts in recent years. What it should be about is a mixing of cultures and recognition of individual identity that helps us move past shallow stereotypes. Understanding the people involved is one key of resolving any issue.

This may only be a subplot of Saturday’s match here in the States, considering it’s America’s first trip to the Round of 16 since 2002 and our first time winning the group since 1930. Plus, there’s the manner in which we secured our place, with yesterday’s dramatic stoppage-time winner by Landon Donovan. I’d like to point out that I’ll be pulling as hard as ever for the U.S. on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be aware of other factors in play.

As for today’s matches…

As if there was much hope, there’ll be no repeat winner as the defending champions Italy are headed home after a 3-2 loss to Slovakia. Although the Azurri finally showed some fight, scoring as many goals in the final ten minutes as they had in their first two games, Slovakia exposed an Italian defense that has traditionally been its strength. With 2006 runner-up France already back home after their Tuesday elimination, this tournament is now the first ever in which the two finalists from the previous World Cup both failed to make it out of the Group Stage.

Slovakia will advance along with Paraguay, who tied New Zealand 0-0. The perpetual underdogs New Zealand will head South with some sense of national pride, since they were eliminated without ever being defeated. Slovakia will take on Netherlands in the next round.

In Group E play, Netherlands won again, beating hapless Cameroon 2-1, and will finish atop the group. In what could be classified as at least a minor surprise, Japan will be the team to join them in the Knockout Stage. The Japanese took down Denmark 3-1 to finish second and will now face Paraguay.

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