World Cup Witchcraft: Africa Teams Turn to Magic for Aid

Stefan Lovgren in Dortmund, Germany
for National Geographic News
June 30, 2006
When the national soccer teams of Ghana and Brazil took to the field at
the World Cup in Germany on Tuesday night, the sell-out crowd of 65,000
hoped to see some magic.

Back home in Ghana, a different kind of magic may have already been applied to the game (Ghana profile, maps, music).

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, it has long been common for soccer teams to turn to witchcraft, or juju, to gain a competitive edge. Teams might, for example, summon witch doctors to cast spells on opposing teams.

Because of the secrecy surrounding such practices, it's difficult to tell how widespread they are in Africa today.

Most people seem to agree that the rituals are far less common than they used to be, and that mostly smaller soccer clubs turn to witchcraft for help.

Oliver Becker is a Frankfurt, Germany-based documentary filmmaker who has researched African cult beliefs and witchcraft in soccer.

He says it's safe to assume that some groups in Ghana performed juju rituals ahead of the game against Brazil.

"Traditional medicine and religion play an important role in most African societies," Becker said.

"Soccer is by far the number one sport in Africa, so it's logical that traditional beliefs would also play an important role in soccer."

Becker depicts the world of soccer juju in his film Kick the Lion—Football and Magic in Africa, which premiered last month as part of the World Cup's art and culture program.

Buried Alive

In many African countries traditional healers and religious leaders can be summoned to perform juju rituals—for a price.

(Read about soccer juju in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in National Geographic magazine.)

"This service is something that is not to be given away for free," Becker said. "Some teams spend so much money on juju that they may be unable to afford traveling to away games."

Most practices seem to be directed at weakening the opponents' spirits.

One well-known technique involves smearing the blood of a pig in the opponents' locker room to scare younger players.

A more extreme practice stipulates that a cow should be buried alive on the field in front of the opponents' goal.

"This is meant to suck the power out of the opponents," Becker said.

A second pair of goalkeeping gloves can be hung in the net to ensure the opponents' goals don't get through. Bits of animals or plants can also be burned near the goal or strewn there in the form of magic powder.

"It's a competitive business," Becker said. "The witch doctors are always trying to come up with new things to try to outdo each other."

When running onto the field, teams may avoid their usual route, because it could be hexed. Or the team may try and weaken the opponents' magic by entering the field backward.

Such seemingly odd behaviors are not limited to African national teams—superstitions are common in soccer the world over.

Many European and South American soccer stars, including those currently playing in the World Cup, adhere to strict pregame rituals.

England defender John Terry, for example, says he always sits in the same place on the bus traveling to the game. He also must tie the tapes around his socks that hold shin guards in place three times before a game.

During this World Cup, Spanish striker Raul Gonzalez was reportedly berated for turning up at practice wearing a yellow T-shirt.

His coach, Luis Aragones, considers yellow bad luck. (France went on to knock Spain out of the cup on Tuesday.)

Before every game Argentina's former coach Carlos Bilardo used to borrow toothpaste from one of his players. He started the ritual before Argentina's first match in the 1986 World Cup, which his team went on to win.

Former Italy coach Giovanni Trappatoni could be seen sprinkling holy water on the playing field from a bottle provided by his sister, a nun.

Juju Dying Out?

Kwabena Ofori is the president of Capital Sports FC, a second-division soccer club in Ghana.

He says juju practices are becoming increasingly uncommon.

"These traditional practices are dying out, along with traditional medicine," he said.

"Players who think they may have a broken bone know they have to go and have it x-rayed at a hospital, not wrapped by a traditional healer."

Soccer witchcraft remains popular in neighboring Benin, which only proves that it doesn't work, Ofori says.

"Benin never gets to the World Cup," he said.

According to Ghana's Ministry of Education and Sports, a woman asked to be taken to the national team's training camp before the World Cup. She claimed to be the queen of all witches of Ghana's Nzemaland region.

The sorceress planned to "offer spiritual support and ward off all evil." The offer was turned down.

On Tuesday Ghana lost to Brazil, zero to three, and was eliminated from the cup.

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