In Cup-crazy South Africa, not even the airport is safe from the warbling drone of that now-infamous plastic plague, the vuvezela. Visitors arriving at Cape Town International, as I did recently, are immersed in the sights and sounds of the world’s biggest sporting event from the moment they hit the tarmac. The sensory onslaught, of course, includes World Cup marketing.

I was juggling my effects at the baggage claim when I noticed a floor-to-ceiling banner featuring three men wearing unfamiliar yellow soccer jerseys. The players, who were among the brightest African stars of the tournament, had the words “Africa United” emblazoned on their chest. It was an ad for South Africa-based MTN, the continent’s leading telecommunications company and the only official African FIFA sponsor.

From Bob Marley and W. E. B. Du Bois to Haile Selassie and Muammar al-Gaddafi, political and cultural leaders have been working on the notion of a united continent since at least 1924. But where diplomacy has failed, the confluence of soccer and cell phones appears to be achieving some small success.
MTN’s network connects 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, including all six of the African teams that qualified for the Cup. Since 2003, Africa has had the fastest growing mobile penetration of any continent, and three countries (Gabon, the Seychelles and South Africa) now boast almost 100% penetration.

“Africa United” is a campaign that no other sponsor could have pulled off, and it’s particularly convincing when coupled with the only cultural medium that pervades every African country south of the Sahara, the beautiful game. The notion of football as a uniting force in Africa is hardly a new one, as Steve Bloomfield’s recent book demonstrates, but a marketing campaign that extends it beyond images of barefoot children on their local pitch and hackneyed ‘hands-across-Africa slogans’ is. (I’d put FIFA’s own “Celebrate Africa’s Humanity” tagline in the hackneyed category.)

MTN’s campaign, which runs across print, broadcast, online and outdoor channels throughout Africa, uses a combination of athlete star power and “Official Sponsor” status to project a simple, powerful message: we want an African champ. The people crowded around TVs across the continent aren’t that interested in celebrating Africa’s humanity; they want the kinds of uniting moments that Roger Milla gave them in 1990 and Siphiwe Tshabalala gave them to kick off the 2010 tournament. And MTN can credibly link its brand to that message, partially because of efforts like its ongoing sponsorship of the Confederation of African Football Champion’s League, but also because of the sheer number of “GOOOOOOOOOAL” SMSs that travelled across African borders on its network on June 11th.

Much of the advertising international World Cup viewers see sentimentalizes the “Africa’s Cup” theme in ways that seem designed to foster some loose cognitive connection between a brand and all the humanity celebrating that’s going on in South Africa this summer.

There’s the good, like Puma’s charming and optimistic “Journey of Football” spot featuring, yes, barefoot children, but also great stock footage from the recent history of West African teams and a pitch-perfect aural hook from Gnarls Barkley. There’s the bad, like Pepsi’s “Oh Africa” spot, which despite its Drogba-Messi star power, doesn’t seem to say much more than “Africans are fun-loving football fans who live on the Serengeti and drink Pepsi.”

And then there’s the awkward and condescending, like the ESPN World Cup theme music, which was produced in Utah using the cast from the Broadway Lion King musical. Every marketer knows that authenticity is a hard thing to find and an even harder thing to sell—Puma’s ‘we heart Africa’ approach is successful because it doesn’t claim more authenticity than the brand can support.

MTN, for its part, has a lot more cred capital to work with than the other brands competing for the Cup’s lucrative collection of eyeballs, and they’re using it to say “we want the same thing you want.” Well, that thing isn’t going to happen, because on Friday, Ghana’s Black Stars lost a heartbreaker to Uruguay, ending the dream of an African team in the finals.

So much for Africa United, but thanks to cell phones and savvy marketing, united Africa looks alive and well.