Many rituals are performed around the game of football, and especially so around a major contest like the World Cup that recently concluded in Qatar. The juju practitioners are said to have had their hands full for the entire 28 days that the football showcase lasted. It applies to other popular events around the world as well, given that all year round there’s always a high-testosterone football match going on somewhere, and on which high stakes are placed.

The pre-match rituals, just like the fetishes involved, vary, and are steeped in mystery. Just like with soldiers going to war, it is an open secret that football players are discouraged from engaging in sex on the night leading to a crucial match. So seriously do some managers and coaches take this directive that they will often have the players under lock-and-key in camp. But while the consequences of this might be apparent on the physical, it is the darker oft-unseen stuff that is of interest here.

In some South African countries the entire team will be made to bathe in a secret mixture called muthi before the game. In some instances they bathe in goats’ intestines or urinate in a secret muthi mixture. Sometimes all the jerseys have to be taken to a sangoma (traditional healer) for treatment before the match. The team will also be given tortoise fat to smear themselves by the sangoma or inyanga, and which is meant to slow down the opponent and discombobulate them when dribbling.

Shortly before kick-off in the semi-finals of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations at the Stade du Mars in Bamako pitting Cameroon against Mali, the Indomitable Lions’ coach, Winfried Schafer and his goalkeeping coach, Thomas Nkono were arrested by the riot police for allegedly placing a magic charm on the pitch to influence the outcome of the game. The same year a team of juju men (shamans) who claimed to have been hired by the Sports Minister to ‘fix’ the post-match penalty shootout between their national team, the Elephants, against Ghana in the 1992 AFCON cup finals, and which the Elephants won, finally received their payment after a ten-year protracted tussle with the Cote d’ Ivoire government. As for their rivals at the hotly-contested final, Ghana, they weren’t sleeping either. Their shaman, Andre Ayew, was caught on camera sprinkling a white substance on the pitch just before the game. Unfortunately for them the Ivorian juju proved stronger.

But while some, like former Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic believed in juju, attributing his team’s failure to win the 2012 AFCON cup to competing jujus, football’s governing body FIFA has so far maintained a studious silence on the matter, making no official pronouncement on the same.

It would appear like spirituality and this game are joined at the hip. According to Ghanaian author Rev. Francis J. Botchway the game of soccer as introduced to Africa by the British, has deep roots in Christianity. Writing in his book Juju, Magic and Witchcraft in African Soccer: Myth or Reality? ,he cites popular Premier League teams like Everton, Aston Villa and Queen’s Park Rangers as having emerged from the church groups and bible class gatherings of 19th Century Victorian England.

Some of the earliest matches introduced by missionaries in Africa did not start without the players congregating on the pitch for a word of prayer, a practice that is still observed by some teams today. Also, the influence of religion on the game is evidenced by some fresh substitutes coming into an ongoing game, pausing at the touchline to make a sign of the cross and sometimes bending to touch the turf while mouthing a short prayer before coming on. Some will also be seen to cross themselves and say a silent prayer before taking a penalty; especially at the end of a close-fought deciding match like the finals of a major continental tournament.

According to Botchway, many of the early teams on the continent practiced ‘spiritism and occultism’, including invoking the saints or using sacred texts, artifacts and litanies to help them win games.  Others went to the extent of communing with the spirits of their dead ancestors (Necropolism) in order to win. Which means that the very Christianity opened the door for African spiritualism (read juju, voodoo or shamanism) to be incorporated into the ‘beautiful game’.

It is the reason some players on the continent will engage in strange rituals before a crucial match like sleeping in a graveyard the night before the match,  and other visiting teams refusing to use the changing rooms or hotels they have been allocated by the home team for fear of juju charms placed there by the rival team ahead of their arrival. Some players will enter the stadium only through a certain gate or tunnel, others will enter the stadium facing backwards, and so on.

And the rituals don’t just apply to African players. Even the monied boys in top-flight European leagues have their own quirks. For instance, former Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney would eat coco pops before every match, Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas kissed his finger ring four times before coming on, keeper Thibaut Courtois takes a selfie of himself sitting on the toilet in the changing room and sends it to friends in Belgium. Portugal’s star Christiano Ronaldo also has a repertoire of rituals; from kissing his sheen pads, to stepping into the pitch right foot first. He also won’t play a game without a fresh haircut. Other than that he insists on being the first member of the Portuguese national team to step on the pitch. On the contrary, Cote d Ivoire’s international Kolo Toure insists on stepping on the pitch last, otherwise he won’t play. But perhaps the most odd of all, is the allegation that before every international game, former English international Paul Gascoigne “Gazza” would summon teammate Les Ferdinand and touch his penis for good luck. Ferdinand has since rubbished the allegation.

But sometimes the belief in supernatural powers takes a bizarre turn. Former FC Nantes star, Shiva N’Zigou’s mother is alleged to have been killed in a “spiritual sacrifice” in order to guarantee her son’s success in his football career in Europe. In a video reposted by the Le Chronique du Gabon’s YouTube channel, the Gabonese star is also said to have been ordered to sleep with with his aunt and sister, on top of engaging in homosexual sex with other men in order to make the juju work. All this was being masterminded by his father, who wanted to have a firm hold on his son’s football-earnings. Donning the jersey of his national team at only age 16, Shiva was among the youngest stars to play for his country at the African Cup championship, even though it later emerged that his birth records had been falsified by his handlers, among them his father, during his move to Europe.

During the Africa Youth championships of 2017, Zambia was hosting Senegal for the finals. The Zambians had already scored two goals by the 58th minute, and looked set to take the cup. Unable to score, the Senegalese resorted to juju, as captured on  video on YouTube. While the Zambian goalkeeper was organizing his wall during a free kick, Senegalese player Ibrahima Ndiaye, approached the goal and took a black object out of his sock, which he threw into the net. It turned out to be a dead bat. The Zambians saw him and protested, and although the final match was briefly interrupted, the juju clearly didn’t work, and Zambia went on to lift the cup.

In some cases voodoo proves to be even more powerful than money. Everton owner, Farhad Moshiri, once went out on a limb to retain Romelu Lukaku before his move to Chelsea. In his own words, he tried everything he could to make him renew his contract. “With Romelu I wasted two summers trying to keep him. I spent three months with his agent, him, his mother and his family and we managed to keep him for another year. Then, last summer, we offered him a better deal than Chelsea. Whatever they offered we matched, but he just didn’t want to stay.” At one of the meetings during the negotiations, Lukaku made a phone call to his mother, who told him she was on pilgrimage somewhere in Africa, and who advised him to move to Chelsea, no matter what, because that is what the spirits had ordained. “Ultimately we lost money,” Farhad concedes in an interview with The Guardian. “To buy Rom now would be £ 120 million. The issue was his brain had gone.”

The examples are diverse and varied, but the truth is that there is a big part that black magic plays during those ninety minutes of football action that the fans do not know of, and especially in African football, and that, much as some people might dismiss its effectiveness, the black arts have a strong hold on the beautiful game right from village club-level all the way up to the top-dollar leagues in Europe, and the World Cup. 

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