African soccer has been ordained by the belief in magic, flawed superstition and rituals to help teams win crucial matches.
The beautiful game is so laden with superstition so much so that team work, efficiency, technical expertise and discipline are benched, subordinated or red carded off the pitch all together.
In Kenya, the soccer tragedy that Black Saturday during the much hyped, floodlit Kenya Premier League duel between arch rivals Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards nine days ago, was pegged on cheap passes such as; stadia (mis)management, inefficient security, inept crowd control, poor match timing, a ticketing debacle and heavy downpour.
But the belief by Gor Mahia fans that Nyayo National Stadium’s Gate NO. 2 is their one and only “lucky” entry, was blamed for the stampede that led to the injury of countless fans and death of seven others. Never mind that fans don’t play.
Soccer club rivalries are as common as goals, frustrated coaches and crazy fans: England’s Manchester United and Arsenal, Scotland’s Celtic and Rangers, Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona and Tanzania’s Simba and Yanga football clubs, just to whistle a few.
And fans and players employ all manner of talismans, mediums, rituals and practices steeped in magic or witchcraft to triumph over their opponents. From players donning lucky boots, jerseys, shin guards, planting animal body parts on the pitch, sprinkling snake blood, skipping over corpses, to smearing themselves with concoctions before shaking hands with their opponents.
The explosive encounters between Kenya’s “K’Ogallo” and “Ingwe” are no different; what with a lifelong rivalry being peppered by animosity between fans, accusations of witchcraft, and superstitious rituals. The two clubs have been known to use different routes to the stadium, believing their opponents have already contaminated them.
Richard Madegwa, who played for AFC Leopards and Kenya Breweries (now Tusker), recalls a sleepless night when they were driven around the whole night so that Gor Mahia couldn’t find out where they were booked for accommodation before their league-cum-Kenyatta Day Cup match in 1993.
“Superstition is normal in soccer and players scaled barbed wire fences instead of using the main gate alongside their rivals,” recalls Madegwa. A star player’s lucky boots, he says, would be kept elsewhere the night before an important match.
Individual players too had their own. The legendary William “Chege” Ouma, for instance, was known for entering the stadium through any route other than the main gate when Re-Union, was playing against Gor Mahia, his former club.
That is not all. The entry of a “non player” is also viewed with superstitious eyes. In October 2001, a dog appeared at Kasarani stadium during a match between AFC Leopards and Mathare United. It streaked across the field, stopped at the corner flag, raised one hind leg and piddled liberally.
Now imagine a picture Leopards fans aiming water bottles and stones at the mongrel. AFC Leopards fans also deflated balls when no goals were forthcoming believing they were “doctored” by their opponents. Such was the case in a Leopards match against Kenya Farmers Association F.C. (KFA) at the City Stadium in 1976. Leopards thrashed KFA 3-0 using a new ball.
This belief has since been off-sided. Henry Motego, a former Shabana, Tusker FC and Kenyan international striker recalls salt being sprinkled on the pitch before Shabana’s home matches in Gusii Stadium. “We were told it was to chase away evil spirits, but I never believed in such practices.”
Motego joined Kenya Breweries where there were rumours that “our team jerseys were washed at Kariobangi before crucial matches with water that had been used to bathe dead bodies. The player concerned was almost fired from the club.”
Kenneth Matiba, the Kenya Breweries Ltd chairman in the 70s, fired five players from the club for engaging in witchcraft. Matiba was then the chairman of the Kenya Football Federation and wanted to rough-tackle witchcraft out of Kenyan clubs which he said “were being taken for a ride by quacks,” recalls veteran sports writer Roy Gachuhi, author of the yet to be published, History of Kenyan Football.
Witchcraft and superstition were rife in the late 70s. To call the bluff Matiba flew in Norwich City, a Division One English side to play Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and coastal clubs, Champion and Mwenge FC, then the top local sides at a time when allegations of the practice were rampant.
Norwich City, the equivalent of the current Liverpool FC, had stars such as Martin Peters who had played in the 1966 England World Cup. “Matiba said he would allow witchcraft if Kenyan clubs used it to win against Norwich City,” recalls Gachuhi.
The teams were also to declare publicly that they engaged in it. “Only Mwenge FC publicly admitted using magic” adds Gachuhi giving the eventual embarrassing score line as follows: Gor lost 5-0, AFC Leopards 6-0, Champion 9-0 and Mwenge FC 3-1.
Matiba wanted had proved that entering the stadium at certain times, via certain gates and following instructions from the “researcher” (witchdoctor) did not work. Mwenge, a team known for taking its players for overnight graveyard tours before a crucial match, claimed their juju worked “a little” since they had the least goals scored against them, besides their solo goal.
Nevertheless, “Matiba, who was dictatorial but efficient, banned witchcraft in football and formed Kenya Breweries FC, Kenya’s first cosmopolitan team. Most Breweries players was poached from these clubs and employed at Kenya Breweries Ltd. So they had to stop using juju to survive in the club and retain their jobs,” recalls Gachuhi.
But there are “taboos” Matiba’s big broom couldn’t sweep away. Like the belief in not having anything to do with the fairer sex before a match. Gachuhi recalls one-time local dancer Princess Farida (now a born-again Christian) gyrating her waist in a pre-match entertainment for Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards fans.
“She climbed on the table of the fourth official, and AFC demanded another table.” Women are the enemy of the team’s “researcher” and it was believed any contact with them would adversely affect the results. So players were not allowed sex three days to a match — or greeting women before crucial matches.
Gor Mahia players snubbed one-time Kenyan minister for Sports and Social Services because of her gender. “In such situations players just nod their heads to acknowledge the greeting, but they can never shake hands with a woman,” explains Madegwa.
We telephoned a famous K’Ogallo footballer who played for the team for many years.“I can’t divulge such team rituals, secrets or beliefs,” he said, adding: “I can only talk about positive stories that can develop Kenyan soccer.”
It is not just touching women that could influence a match. Before the start of the Kenya National Football League duel between the Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards in the mid ‘80s at the City Stadium, Gor chairman Zack Mbori and AFC Leopards’ Alfred Sambu were the “two principles” who would jointly carry the ball to the centre of the field “power sharing” style.
And the powers to touch players sometimes were vested on one particular person. Gor Mahia had a Mr Ochido the one who mostly handled equipment and injured players. Gachuhi remembers him as being the team’s physiotherapist “who was in his 60s but could run towards an injured player like a 20-year old when the referee signalled for help. There was a team doctor, but Ochido was integral to that outfit.”
How do superstitions take root in football? “They are started by the team “researcher” who is even paid more than the players” says Madegwa. “If the team wins, then that becomes the norm until it loses and another (medicine man) that could even be just a fan, comes up with a different ritual.”
Kenyan International, Allan Wanga, says if a player is comfortable, scores or plays well in a particular pair of boots, he may start believing that they bring good luck. Wanga has three different boots for training, when turning up for Harambee Stars and another for normal team matches, but he adds that “belief in rituals was mostly practised by players of the previous generation as today’s players hardly follow them.”
And do rituals really work? Motego says NO. “Winning depends on training, following the coach’s game plan and the players being on form. If they worked why don’t teams just sit back and wait for the day of the match?” he poses. “As a player I only believed in God and his ability to score, which was I was called ‘Super-Sub’ when I played for Harambee Stars,” says Motego.
But sometimes, it looks like superstition, witchcraft, magic — whatever you call it — works. Photojournalist Mohammed Amin recalls one juju man during the 2008 Cup of Nations in Ghana who would carry either two chickens or two guinea fowls during Ghana’s home matches.“Ghana would score two goals when he waved two guinea fowls and one goal when he carried one chicken,” says Amin, furnishing me with photos for good measure.
Superstitious beliefs aren’t just confined to these shores. One memorable incident Gachuhi witnessed was during the East and Central Club Championships at the City Stadium featuring Sudan’s El-Mereikh. As the players were getting on the pitch El-Mereikh centre-half threw what looked like pebbles, which fell into a particular shape and he seemed very happy. It was very brief and very few people noticed.
“When I later enquired I was told if the pebbles had fallen in any other pattern, the player could have withdrawn from the game. And he played first class football,” he recalls. Gachuhi also cites the 1994 Africa Cup Winners Cup return leg between Kenya Breweries and Congo’s Daring Club Motema Pembe at the Nyayo National Stadium. The Kenyan side had forced a draw in Kinsasha.
“Motema Pembe players arrived on the day of the match and were hostile to everybody. They beat Kenya Breweries 3-0. And one could see their fans, cheering with paraphernalia — fly whisks and gourds in what was not a routine dance.” Soccer rituals and superstitious beliefs it seems, are like being hooked on drugs.