The Throw-In: Root, root, root for the home team

My dad always taught me that when your team gets knocked out of the playoffs, you’re supposed to root for their vanquisher out of respect. Fine words of advice – but really, I was never about to pull for the Suns or the 49ers.

Still, I got the message. When a team puts together a commendable effort – and plays the right way in doing so – you tip your hat to them and take the high road. More importantly, you want them to go all the way so you can say, "Well, at least my team lost to the champs."

Well, Dad, now I really get it. And that’s why, if you’re a supporter of the US national team, it’s time to get behind Ghana. Bob Bradley wants you to. Landon Donovan wants you to. And all of Africa wants you to.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. It’s now two World Cups running that Ghana have bounced the US. It stings a little. And we’re still playing a bit of what-if. But there should be no bitterness, no sour grapes. Put aside some of the grievances about the refereeing, and let go your complaints that the Black Stars embellished a little in extra time to hold down the result.

This is the simple fact: Ghana deserved to win last weekend. They played a great game in eliminating the US. They were organized, hungry and ready for the moment. They came out and attacked with all they had – they were fast, aggressive and smart. They combined well. They looked for the Americans to make mistakes, and they capitalized.

In short, they made the plays that counted, and they did so efficiently and intelligently. Even Bradley tipped his hat to them, calling them a team that “plays the right way” and recognizing they were a well-coached group.

So let’s take a collective deep breath and say, together, “We’re over it.” The US simply lost to a team that wanted it more. But now let’s take a step back even further and look at the bigger picture.

Ghana, obviously, are the only African team remaining in the first World Cup on the continent. For the past four years, we’ve heard ad nauseam that this tournament was Africa’s coming-out party. The blustery chatter was thick that an African team realistically could make the final for the first time in history.

Sure, Ghana were one of the most talked-about candidates. But really, any one of the strong African teams in the field seemed capable: Ivory Coast, Cameroon, even Nigeria. And then one by one, the dreams died for each of them, whether it was because of injuries, poor coaching decisions or just overmatched by quality opponents. Africa’s dream was falling apart. And Ghana were saving it.

“Me and my colleagues were very disappointed that there were no other African teams with us,” said Ghana’s man of the match, André Ayew, after defeating the US last weekend. “We really wanted there to be a lot of African teams in this competition to do something for the continent.”

Well now, Ghana can. And they have always had perhaps the best qualifications. For one, they’ve tasted the most tournament success in recent years. From their Round of 16 run in Germany 2006, to their consistent play at recent African Cup of Nations, to their breakthrough Under-20 World Cup title last year – the first international tournament won by an African team. This is a program with infrastructure, history and, most importantly, consistency.

That’s why Ghana are still standing. They’re well-coached by a pragmatic, likeable manager in Serb Milovan Rajevac and they have experience across the board – from veterans like Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and John Mensah, to former youth-team stars like Ayew, Kwadwo Asamoah and Samuel Inkoom.

“Come to our camp and you can see the difference,” Appiah told MLSsoccer.com last weekend, when asked about what makes Ghana stand above the rest. “We do not celebrate a victory – we get back to work. You can see the difference between [other African teams] and the professionals.”

Now for the preachy part. US players have been lauding the people of South Africa since last summer’s Confederations Cup, how the country embraced them and pulled for them as if they were their own players.

And that’s true. I can’t tell you how many South Africans I met during my time at the World Cup who were more than familiar with the US team. They lauded Donovan’s skills, they knew Jozy Altidore’s back story, they loved the African-sounding name and menacing presence of gentle giant Oguchi Onyewu. You couldn’t ask for more of a virtual home-field advantage.

Now, they’re all behind Ghana. I can promise you, the spirit of the first African World Cup is very real. Whereas South African flags adorned every car in Johannesburg during the group stage, it was amazing how many Ghana flags began to appear the day after the Black Stars became Africa’s last remaining hope of making history.

The support behind Ghana will be overwhelming on Friday against Uruguay. Africa truly understands that its lone remaining representative is the strongest, most capable of the batch. And conversely, the team itself knows it’s carrying the weight of the continent on its shoulders.

“Now that we are lucky to be here, we need to fight for not only us, but for all the teams, too,” Ayew said. “We feel we have the continent behind us and that has given us a lot of energy to fight more.”

Let’s put this in a little bit of perspective. Everyone associated with US Soccer has talked about the supposed missed opportunity of a clear path to the semis. That’s legitimate. But it’d be hard to pinpoint what percentage of 310 million Americans is truly disappointed. But if the Black Stars make history on Friday, becoming the first African side ever to reach the World Cup semis, it’s a guarantee that 1 billion Africans will be on cloud nine.

“There’s no real consolation when you lose,” explained Donovan, “but I would root for Ghana now. I want them to do well.”

That’s the right attitude. Understand this: In the grand scheme of the soccer cosmos, it was more important that Ghana advanced. An entire continent is counting on them. How could you not get on board?

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.