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Halloween Special – Witches, Magic and African Football
Africa is a continent steeped in cultural traditions and differences. Witchcraft is a big part of many traditions, especially in sub saharan Africa. Over the years, these traditions have slowly made it’s way into the game we love. Curses on pitches, bewitchments of match balls, the odd voodoo curse, there are many examples of witchcraft in the African game which have been reported over the years. Magic, or “juju” as it’s called in many African countries is not uncommon on the continental stage.
One of the bigger incidents of magic being used in order to gain an advantage before a match occurred in 2002. The incident was not widely publicised but seemed to aim some allegations which were very serious in nature. Cameroon, who eventually won their 4th title beating rivals Senegal on penalties in the final, had a huge hurdle in Mali to overcome in the semi finals. Two time African Football of the Year and then assistant coach Thomas N’Kono reportedly took it upon himself to give his team the edge over the West African Nation. N’Kono was arrested prior to kick off for burying what appeared to be bones under the stadiums turf in an apparent attempt to curse the Malian side. Nikon was also spotted various times spraying a stage green liquid onto the surface during his ‘ritual.’ The Cameroonian legend spent the night in jail as a result of the use of magic on the pitch and Cameroon went on to win the crucial tie 3-0, much to the outrage of the Malian side and its fans, who till today still believe N’Kono’s curse was the reason for their side’s crushing loss.
Another incident occurred during the African Cup of Nations, 10 years prior to the N’Kono incident. Ivory Cost were famous victors of the 1992 edition of the trophy, winning one of the most captivating finals of all time in an enthralling penalty shootout which ended 11-10 against Ghana. The Ivorians, who had claimed their first ever African Cup of Nations tournament win after the shootout were accused of hiring witch doctors to perform curses on their opponents. The doctors, hired directly by the Ivorian Sports Minister left the tournament disgruntled after not receiving payment for their services and placed a curse on the West African side, claiming that Ivory Coast would not triumph in the continental tournament until they were paid their dues. Five tournaments later and the Ivorians were struggling, only managing a solitary third placed finish since their maiden victory in 1992. It was then reported that the Minister has issued an apology to the doctors for not paying up on the deal after the 1992 tournament, and after receiving compensation from the government the doctors lifted the curse. It took a while for the Ivorians to win their second title, which came in 2015, but many still attribute the curse for the lack of success.
Egypt is not a nation known for it’s ‘magic’ on the footballing stage but were accused of it at the 2008 African Cup of Nations, where reports of opposing fans walking around with “juju jars” in an attempt to ward off evil spirits were ripe. The Egyptian side, who won their second African Cup in a row, sacrificed a cow in training before the tournament kicked off. The meat was donated to the poor and was meant to bring good luck to the side (ultimately it did) however many Ghanaian news outlets reported the sacrifice as an act of Black Magic in an attempt to gain the upper hand over the hosts, who were considered favourite for the title. Egypt eventually beat Cameroon in the final, courtesy of a superb late Mohamed Abou-Treika winner, with the triumph being attributed to the sacrifice before the tournament.
The apparent art of Juju has also been seen in continental club matches, with Al Ahly falling victim to ‘juju’ in a 2014 CAF Champions League group stage match against Young Africans of Tanzania. In the Cairo giants’ home tie against Yanga goalkeeper Deo Munish was seen tying a thread of string across his goals, apparently sealing it with juju to keep out Al Ahly attacks. This was picked up though, albeit not by anyone in the stadium. Al Ahly midfielder Walid Soliman, who was injured and watching from home at the time saw the act and immediately notified the Ahly technical staff. “I saw the Young Africans keeper do it before the kickoff on TV as I watched the game from home because I had an injury. I then called our team’s technical staff and revealed what I had seen. Rami Rabia went to the goal and removed it and amazingly we went on to score through Sayed Moawad”. Al Ahly went on to nervously win the tie 4-3 on penalties and making the group stage in the process.
Magic has also been something mentioned in the domestic Egyptian league, famously by outspoken Zamalek president Mortada Mansour. Following a draw with Wadi Degla in 2014 in a game which saw one of the great goalkeeping performances from Egyptian legend Essam El-Hadary, as well as some bizarre misses from close range, Mortada Mansour declared “Zamalek were great today but El-Hadary’s net was locked by genies and ghosts, and he has been doing that for a really long time. Of course he did a great job today but there were bizarre misses from open-goal chances, so that wasn’t totally him. It was the help of his little demons.” Mansour, who has to be one of the most quotable people involved in football then said “I am not kidding. I want to tell you that El-Hadary uses ghosts and demons to stop the ball. I know the sheikh that you deal with to help you with these paranormal forces. He is from a Southern-Arab state.” A bit far fetched following the performance of his side, who should have won the match with ease, but damning nonetheless.
Traditions and superstitions are ripe in the African game. Logically, these curses and spells shouldn’t have any bearing on matches. They act as a psychological boost to fans, players and staff alike. One would think that is the magic did work then African sides would encounter more success on the world stage. However, the art of juju isn’t something which is likely to disappear anytime soon within continental and local matches. Beware of the ‘witches.’