African soccer is unique Abedi Pele has said, talent is as important as juju when it comes to winning. (Image: Jake Brown).
Football is a game controlled by rules: 17 immutable laws that govern everything from the size of the goals to the equipment that can be used. Despite these edicts, the game remains one of exciting chaos barely contained within them.
Some of this anarchy is down to the superstitions competitors bring to the game. Superstition, of course, is not restricted to European players who put on their shorts last; we Africans just do it better, with more colour, spirit and panache. Africa is different.
The African Cup of Nations will be upon us soon; 16 nations will hold their breaths, pray to ancestors and pay their chosen marabout – or juju man – to bestow their strongest magic on their heroes. Charms, amulets, spells and even animals buried in the vicinity of a stadium have all been used by African teams to bring them success on the field.
Rituals on show during the tournament, and in football leagues the breadth of Africa, are based in Africans’ deeply held religious beliefs. Reverend Emmanuel-Kenneth Goode, official chaplain of Ghanaian club Asante Kotoko, doesn’t believe in juju but he does accept that belief in something enhances a team’s luck. “Almost everything an African does he wants to believe in something. So they want to believe that some deity or power can help them to win matches,” he told journalist Kent Mensah of Goal.
National teams visit men like Gbass of Dabu, a medicine man who helped Ivory Coast win their one and only continental title. A dispute over an unpaid bill for his services resulted in him putting a curse on the Elephants; they would never win another title until things were made right.
Gbass had been hired by Michel Zoah, then the country’s minister of sport, who earnestly claimed the subsequent failures were down to one simple fact: the juju men that followed Gbass did not possess magic as strong.
Mohammed, a Cameroonian diviner, claims that he has been consulted by players and team managers searching for an edge. He explained to the BBC: “European players take drugs to improve their performance. We Africans do not have access to drugs. We’ve got a third eye and traditional concoctions that scientific tests cannot detect.”
“Almost everything an African does he wants to believe in something. So they want to believe that some deity or power can help them to win matches,” says Reverend Emmanuel-Kenneth Goode (Image: JBDodane).
Manyanga – or palm oil – is the most common ingredient of most of these concoctions. They are rubbed into self-inflicted cuts; players may be given kola nuts to eat or made to jump over a bonfire before a game. They have been known to refuse to shake hands with opponents out of fear that their rivals will transfer their own black magic.
Some teams have gone to even more extreme lengths to win the esteem of the spirits. A team from Zimbabwe, for example, lost a player after they were ordered to jump into a crocodile-infested river as part of a cleansing ritual.
In an effort to harness the spirits of the departed, some club teams have been known to camp out in graveyards before a big game. They do so with the words of their juju ringing in their ears – any bump in the night is just the departed filling their boots with otherworldly power.
Expertise takes a back seat
Ghanaian and African football legend Abedi Ayew Pele believes that to an extent, the practice of juju has held African football back. Pele told website Goal.com that juju permeated the beautiful game in Africa to such an extent that technical expertise, discipline and tactics had been subjugated.
“I think we must acknowledge that juju is part of the African tradition, and we shouldn’t forget our tradition. I don’t think any such thing like juju works in football, because it has been proved worldwide that we Africans have more juju than any other people, but we cannot win the World Cup,” he said.
Whether out of habit or routine, football is rife with superstitions players believe will give them the upper hand every time. World Cup-winning French captain Laurent Blanc believed his country’s 1998 success was down to the kiss he planted on the bald head of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez before the start of every game. Rituals – from not cutting you hair until you score to wearing the same underpants for an entire winning season – have been adopted by players in Europe.
Argentinean goalkeeping legend, and male model, Sergio Goycochea earned fame as a master penalty stopper. His secret was his discreet habit of emptying his bladder before facing the dead ball. He told his biographer: “It was my lucky charm and I went before every shoot out. I was very subtle; nobody complained.”
Barry Fry, one time coach of English club Birmingham City, believed the club’s lack of on-field success had something to do with the evil spirits inhabiting the club’s St Andrews home. To ward off the evil he urinated at all four corners of the ground. But his juju was not strong enough to fight the curse, apparently, and he lost his job.
In elite competition the margin between victory and defeat is so slim that every avenue to build confidence and self-belief matters. So if juju or rituals build that confidence, that is all that matters, or so Western sports psychologists will tell you. Studies by European universities have shown the positive effect of superstition on performance, especially in high-pressure events. Those studies have found that magical rituals or repetitive behaviour help to focus the mind and relieve the stress of competition.
Sports psychologists – ask some people and they will tell you that psychology is voodoo science – warn, though, that reliance on magic or ritual is fleetingly shimmery. Psychologists like Brad Busch, who works with footballers in the English Premier League, counsel their clients to concentrate on the proven. “The brain craves control and if it does not have a sense of certainty then superstitions might help to introduce a better sense of control. This is invariably a placebo effect but the feeling can be a powerful one.”
In the end, no matter the magic drizzled over their performance, one nation will praise their juju man and 15 others will be throwing out their concoctions come 8 February.