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Soccer Superstitions

very once in a while, stories pop up in the Western press about odd goings-on at a soccer match in a remote part of the world. These stories contain sordid details of spells placed by witch doctors, animals sacrificed by fans, or objects burned by those seeking to affect the outcome of a game.

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An African witch doctor (photo: Moonbattery.com)

In the summer of 2006, for example, a story came out which suggested that the Angolan national team was going to bring a witch doctor to the upcoming World Cup (manager Luis Oliveira Goncalves denied his team was going to receive any supernatural assistance).

The 2000 African Cup of Nations was tarred by suspicious events in the quarter-final between Senegal and Nigeria in which

… a former official of the Nigerian FA raced on to the pitch and seized a ‘charm’ that had been lying in the back of the Senegal net. Senegal protested, but to no avail, and Nigeria went on to score twice and win. The official was subsequently banned, but his action was seen as hugely significant in Nigeria’s progress.

African Soccer magazine once ran a “10-page investigation into witchcraft in football, detailing animal sacrifices, self-mutilation, casting of spells, lucky charms, odious concoctions and a one-hour delay at an international match while teams argued about who would be first to step on to the pitch.”

This phenomenon is not limited to Africa. Before each game at the 2006 World Cup, “Mexico’s grand wizard carrie[d] out two rituals a day for the country’s … team, invoking ‘Holy Death’ in front of a plastic skeleton to protect them and bring them luck.”

Ecuador’s national team brought along Tzamarenda Naychapi, described by the Guaridan as a witch doctor-cum-shaman-cum-priest-type-fella, although his juju wasn’t that powerful, as his team were knocked out by England in the round of 16.

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Tzamarenda Naychapi is also a hit with the ladies (photo: AP/ Franka Bruns)

It’s easy to see these practices as strange, but are they? Soccer players and fans may do so in different ways, but don’t people around the world do strange things to help their team?

Take the act of players crossing themselves, which many do so as they enter the field, after missing a shot, or after scoring a goal. This act is intended to bring the player good fortune or to give thanks to God for having received the strength to score a goal, etc.

There are also a multitude of pre-game rituals that Westerners carry out to help their team’s cause. In his book The Soccer Tribe, Desmond Morris discusses several of what he calls these “soccer superstitions.” He writes about players always stays at the same hotel when playing away, a team that always plays a round of golf before a match, and even a player who required his wife to wash the windows on match day as “she was doing just that when he last had a great game” (151).

Pre-game rituals alone are worthy of a book (Morris writes “of one hundred soccer superstitions, collected at random, no fewer than 40 per cent were concentrated in the pre-match dressing room”). They include always lacing up boots in a prescribed order, always entering the field first or last, and wearing a lucky charm during a match (FIFA’s recent crack down on jewelry has made this more difficult).

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Holland’s Ruud Krol with his lucky necklace at the 1978 World Cup (photo: BBC)

Shoes, not surprisingly, play a central role in many soccer superstitions. Cameron Kippen at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia writes that “In 1908 when goal-scoring ace, George Hedley played for Woverhampton Wanderers he scored a goal against Newcastle causing one of his favourite boots to split. Despite being offered a new pair Hedley steadfastly refused and saw the game to completion with one tattered boot. The player had his favourite boots patched up at least 17 times before eventually and somewhat reluctantly parting with them.”

The most recent, and most hilarious, incarnation of the soccer superstition was Stuart Pearce and his lucky mascot, Beanie the Horse. Given to him by his daughter when he was manager of Manchester City, Pearce placed his equine buddy in the technical area, claiming it brought his team luck (Psycho lost his job later that season, so perhaps it wasn’t that lucky).

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Stuart “Psycho” Pearce (right) and Beanie the Horse (left) (photo: BBC)

Western soccer superstitions make sense to us Westerners (well, maybe not Beanie the Horse). Crossing oneself, for example, makes complete sense in a society rooted in Christianity, but to someone unfamiliar with Western ways it would be as strange as witch doctors often appear to us. As Horace Miner points out in his classic essay Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, nearly all cultural practices appear odd if one does not understand the context in which they exist. It is easy to see a practice like those employed by African players and fans as something as “foreign” and “strange”; it is far more difficult to recognize how similar it is to our own actions.The practices of African witch doctors and Stuart Pearce may seem very different, but they both have the same goal: to help one’s own team win. The means may be very different, but the ends are identical.

Desmond Morris’s words could describe players in any part of the world.

[Players] seek additional aid of a kind their trainers and managers cannot give them – the supernatural aid of superstitious practices. They have no idea how such actions can help, but they perform them all the same, ‘just in case’. They frequently call them ridiculous and stupid, but they dare not omit them (150).

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