Superstitions are not uncommon in sport, and football and its players are no exception to this rule. From the greatest in the sport to the myriad others hoping to become so, weird practices/routines before, during or after the game are as much as a part of playing the game itself.
Chelsea captain and England defender, John Terry apparently sits in the same place in the team bus. Former England and Manchester United defender, Gary Neville too admits to following set routines – same set of shoes, same belt, etc. In a desperate attempt to help his team get back to winning ways, Barry Fry, during his days as the Birmingham City manager, admitted to urinating in the 4 corners of the field. His team did fare much better, but Fry was soon kicked out.
There have been instances of players/staff relying on the Almighty to help them/team perform to expectations. The most classic example of this being, former Italy coach Giovanni Trappatoni, who was seen sprinkling holy water on the playing field.
But, does the practice take so much predilection that players concentrate more on persuading supernatural powers to help them out rather than putting their hard work on the field? Apparently, yes!
In Africa, where Juju is common among local people, the footballers are not that much different. Juju is “an object of any kind superstitiously venerated by West African native tribes, and used as a charm, amulet, or means of protection; a fetish. Also the supernatural or magical power attributed to such objects, or the system of observances connected therewith; also a ban or interdiction effected by means of such an object.” African footballers have been known to go to great lengths in getting juju to work for them as they believe charms and spells help them become victorious and at times even work against their opponents.
During the 2008, African Cup of Nations opener between Ghana and Guinea many Ghana fans were seen with juju pots to ward away all devils. There were even fans with guinea fowls among the crowd. Whether this is what helped Ghana secure a narrow 2-1 win over their rivals may never be known, but it does throw light on how much people think juju plays football. Even more bizarre was the 2002 game between Mali and Cameroon, when Cameroon officials, including the head coach placed a magic charm on the pitch before the game kicked-off.
Not long ago, Goran Stevanovic, former Ghana coach, attributed his team failure to win the AFCON 2012 to players who try to outdo each other using black power or Juju. In his report after the tournament in which the Black Stars finished fourth, Stevanovic said, “We all need to help in changing some players’ mentality about using black power to destroy themselves and also make sure we install discipline and respect for each other.”
Ghana is not the only country that seems to be suffering from this mentality. In fact, much of the African football-loving population seem to sway to the notion that juju plays football. German film-maker, Oliver Becker who made the film Kick the Lion—Football and Magic in Africa depicting the use of juju in football says, “Traditional medicine and religion play an important role in most African societies. 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."
Ask former Nigerian footballer and Mohammedan Sporting (Bangladesh) coach, Emeka Ezeugo about juju and he is quick to say that all that will not work. “If juju worked for some players, why did we not win the World Cup with it?” It was reported that his team-mate Taribo West spent a large chunk of money on juju but Ezeugo did not want to delve too much on the topic saying, “I will let Taribo answer any question related to him.”
Not long ago, Ezeugo is supposed to have spoken to the media about his time with the Super Eagles and how most of the players used juju to keep their places in the team. Ezeugo is supposed to have said during the disclosure that there are players who believed in juju and when he came to the national team in 1987, there was juju everywhere with players hanging all sorts of amulets, to curry favour with the powers, in their changing rooms.
Even if the claims may not surprise many, Ezeugo squashed these reports saying it was only by a journalist who was trying to take the short-cut to success and that he never made any of those claims. Speaking exclusively, the former defender said “I began playing for Nigeria in 1987, that was different time all-together. Any player who believed in such rubbish quickly lost his place in the team. Juju doesn't play football.”
Even if juju was not prevalent in the team Ezeugo was a part of, African football is rife with practices that often border on the extreme. Randy Joe Sa'ah reports for the BBC that it is quite common in Africa to find teams camping out nights in a graveyard before an important match. Teams, international teams, have gone as far as not using the host country's facilities such as rooms or vehicles as they fear they could be contaminated by harmful charms.
Of course, ridding the country of such practices would be so much easier if the people who claim to have powers and the people who believe in them reduce, but that seems unlikely as even top administrators try to help their team ride their luck by sending out witchdoctors as members of the federation.
Former Technical Director of Nigeria Football Association (NFA), Kashimowo Laloko, once told the BBC World Service programme that he believes juju can change the course of a football match. "I believe it does exist (juju). As an African, we have our customs and tradition."
In 2002, the BBC reported that the Ivory Coast government had to settle a 10 year dispute with witchdoctors who claimed that they had a hand in the team's triumph in African Nations Cup in Senegal in 1992. The doctors were apparently hired by the Ivory Coast Sports Minister.
Cameroon's then Minister of Sport and Physical Education, Michel Zoah also clearly indicated that the government was sending out witchdoctors as team staff as he said during the press conference that the team's failure was due to many things, one of which being witchcraft not being effective.
With so many people at the very top also believing in juju helping their teams in winning, it would be tough for Africa to rid their lower leagues of such practices. Reports all over indicate the lower leagues are plagued by such practices and teams openly take part in them. But had juju worked, African would have been raking in the money and swimming in glory ages ago. Alas, they still have a lot to do.
Ezeugo sums up everything brilliantly with the quote of the interview. In his own words: “If juju works in football, India will be winning every World Cup. India has no rival in jadu (magic).”
You can follow Vishaal Loganathan on Twitter @blasphelod