Witchcraft casts spell over African football

Published Jun 12, 2002


By Scott McDonald

Oita, Japan - Burying part of an animal at midnight in a soccer field may seem to be a bizarre way to try to win a game, but it is one of the common practices African soccer officials are trying to stamp out.

Animal sacrifices along with special potions and hexing spells are just some of the spiritual practices that overshadow the game in Africa where witchcraft is deeply rooted in some countries.

Already at the World Cup, one South African player has been asked a question on voodoo, which surprised him so much he broke out laughing.

The use of team advisers, as the witchdoctors are known, is so widespread that the soccer ruling body for the continent was forced to ban them from the African Nations Cup earlier this year.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) said the ban was needed to wipe out a Third World image, especially as African countries are likely to compete to host the 2010 World Cup.

"We are no more willing to see witchdoctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands. Image is everything," a CAF statement said in January.

Senegal, who play in Oita on Sunday against either Sweden, England or Argentina in the second round of the World Cup, were applauded by African soccer officials for their hard work to qualify for Japan and for not using advisers.

"If witchcraft worked, it would doubtless have seen other countries, more renowned for the practice, qualify in their place," African Soccer Magazine reported before the World Cup started.

The magazine said there was "a common thread of spiritual practices - animals sacrificed and their parts buried, midnight rituals, powders and smelly lotions that embraces every part of sub-Saharan Africa and spans every variation of football success".

Casting a spell on a team is so common that players sometimes will climb fences to enter a stadium rather than use the main gate, fearing a spell may have been put on it.

Of course, superstitions are not limited to Africa.

Many South American players cross themselves before going onto the field and it is common for players in all countries to go through set rituals before games, such as always putting on the right boot first.

But the practice is so widespread in Africa that a reporter, apparently in all seriousness, asked South Africa striker Benni McCarthy to comment on rumours the South Africans had been injecting the blood of wild animals into their legs to make them run faster.

The question prompted a fit of laughter from McCarthy, who has played in Europe for the last six years.

"Don't worry. South Africa don't have anything to do with that. We practise fair play and I think we do the same as any European country does. We don't do no voodoo stuff," McCarthy told a news conference after recovering his composure.

McCarthy's side take on Spain in their final group B clash on Wednesday needing a draw to be sure of clinching a place in the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

Japan's French coach, Philippe Troussier, who coached South Africa to the World Cup four years ago, was known as the "white witchdoctor" for his abilities.

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