The Enchantment of African Soccer

As the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Ivory Coast, the influence of witchcraft still looms over the continent’s game

The Enchantment of African Soccer
Ivoirian supporters parade down the street during the current Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

From time immemorial, black magic, witchcraft, juju or muti, as it is variously known, has always been associated with African daily life. These beliefs persist to this day, even in an era when Africa boasts of one of the largest cellphone penetration rates in the world and rapidly increasing urbanization. It therefore comes as no surprise that in this soccer-loving continent, where the game stands head and shoulders above all other sports, traditional beliefs have permeated its every aspect, from kids’ soccer to the highest levels of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s leading tournament.

Long-held cultural beliefs and customs have been ingrained in African societies over centuries, as they sought to attribute illnesses, deaths and even mental problems to individuals and groups of people rather than issues of hygiene, poverty and poor health facilities. These ills, which are still prevalent to this day, are now perpetuated by poor African leadership and governance systems that are driven by corruption, greed and the desire to cling on to power at all costs.

Association football, or soccer as it is known in the United States, spread its wings across Africa with the advent of industrialization. Its appeal proliferated like wildfire with the migration of millions of young males into the mining and other industrial communities that filled the coffers of the colonizing powers of Britain, France, Portugal and others. Soccer swept across the continent like a tidal wave, engulfing youths in its spell. Pitches sprang up on any available patch of grass that could accommodate even a handful of kids willing to have a kickabout.

In Zambia, mining towns sprouted all over the Copperbelt region, Zambia’s copper mining hub, with each center building sporting facilities to keep their workers fit and active. Within a 100-mile radius, the towns of Kitwe, Luanshya, Mufulira, Chingola, Kalulushi and Chililabombwe, all built around individual copper mines, grew into fully fledged communities with schools, housing, shops and hospitals alongside many other amenities. Soccer became a vehicle to keep men’s testosterone-filled bodies from bar and tribal fights, by channeling them toward stadiums where they would expend energy cheering on their teams. These cities would become the key drivers of Zambian soccer and other sports, with the country’s most prominent sports stars emerging from them.

This migration across the continent brought in workers from different tribal and national groups, with their own beliefs and customs but with one thing in common: belief in the powers and abilities of their witch doctors, potions and magical practices, even in the face of industrialization and modernization.

For as long as soccer has been played in Africa, the specter of witchcraft has hung over the game. Nchimunya Mweetwa, a former Zambian international player, recalls that as early as high school, it was established that certain teams practiced the dark arts. “I first encountered the use of juju at this time. The school team had a witch doctor, which we were made to believe would win us matches,” he told New Lines. When asked why teachers who ran school soccer and had a decent level of education would believe this, he explained: “It’s a belief system. Africans believe in our tradition and one of the traditions is the use of charms. Teachers have been educated in modern ways to allow them to become teachers, but you find that culture gets the better of them, so they still go back to their roots and beliefs. This is what they believe would make a team succeed and not the training on the field. We got the juju in oil form, applied to our legs and those players who believed in it appeared to gain more energy and were motivated. Personally, though I didn’t believe in it, we beat a lot of teams on the premise that it works and so that was the impact on the team.” Of the 15 players on his team, only three did not believe in the mystical powers.

Later in his career, Mweetwa played for leading clubs in the country, advancing to the top league. He found that these practices were still ongoing, though at this level they had a choice of whether to participate individually or not. “Most of my teammates were brought up in that environment, so they believed in juju so much. The same applied to the coaches, so whatever the players were told to do, they did without question. The coaches would give the team various substances in liquid or powder form to either rub onto our skin or to dip the football kits in. They would put little roots or other plant forms in our boots. Some of the players also had some of their own substances. Different types, putting them in their boots or socks, some bathing in water with different concoctions in it.”

His fine form for his local Zambian club earned Mweetwa a contract to play in Europe, and he joined Rovaniemen Palloseura in Finland, where he soon became a fan favorite for his high-scoring ways. Here, he met many players from other African countries. He found that their reliance on black magic was soon put aside in their new environment. “The trees and roots we used in Africa were not available in Finland, the trees and plants were different. We just played football. We didn’t even consider it. The better training and techniques we used made the difference to how we played. It’s so different from how we played our football in Africa. They take sport very differently from us. They start nurturing talent from a young age while in Africa at an early age you are forced to do house chores, you are forced to hustle because of our levels of poverty. We lack in so much and that is why we believe in so many nonexistent things.”

As more African players win contracts to play their soccer overseas, higher levels of professionalism are attained when they either return home for the final stages of their careers or go into soccer coaching. Their experiences abroad make them aware of what it really takes to play soccer at the highest levels of the game and the degree of commitment, professionalism and focus required to succeed. The intensity of training, strict adherence to diet and advances in modern training techniques leave little room for their previously held beliefs in wizards and witches, concoctions and spells.

The new generation of coaches are more focused on updated and modern coaching methods and their charges are beginning to open their eyes, but old habits continue to prevail.

In a recent top league match in Zambia, there was drama when both teams refused to leave the pitch for the halftime break before the other, believing that doing so would be detrimental to them. A stalemate ensued. Much time was lost as the match officials struggled to get them both off the field.

Another example of how old beliefs plague African soccer occurred in 1997, when a security guard brutally kicked a cat in front of 60,000 soccer fans and millions watching on television during a match between two of South Africa’s most popular teams, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. The incident was caught on camera and made headlines around the world. The guard reacted to a cat, considered evil in parts of Africa, being thrown onto the pitch by giving it a hefty boot. It was later found dead outside the stadium. He was fined and given a community service sentence. African superstition had claimed another victim.

A year later, when South Africa reached the final of the 1998 Africa Cup, which they lost 2-0 to Egypt, their local coach Jomo Sono had two members on his staff whose designation was “special projects.” Their role was that of medicine men, and their main job was to make sure that no other African team could match their ability to conjure up the spells and ointments that would guarantee their victory in the tournament. Such was the deep-rooted belief in these methods in the South African game that they saw the need to attach personnel whose roles were unconventional and nothing short of controversial at this level — in an Africa Cup tournament. While South Africa was happy to announce the presence of its “project team,” there were without doubt other countries that had similar contingents but were more discreet about making their presence known.

Sono did not hesitate to use similar methods with the players at the soccer club that he owns in South Africa, Jomo Cosmos, which takes its name from his first name and that of the club he played for in the U.S., the New York Cosmos. When asked if he himself believed in these supernatural powers, he smiled and said quietly, “If the players believe in it then we do it, because if we don’t they will be defeated psychologically.”

Perhaps the most dramatic incident in African international soccer occurred at the semifinal of the 2002 Africa Cup in Mali. A World Cup legend, the famous Cameroonian former goalkeeper and assistant coach at the time, Thomas Nkono, was assaulted in full view of thousands of fans in the stadium and the world’s leading sports journalists. He had stepped onto the field hours before kickoff and, as he made his way toward the goal area, was stopped and beaten up by Malian policemen who believed he was attempting to place some form of juju in the goal area. Nkono was dragged off the pitch in handcuffs, his hands raised above his head in defiance, showing the world’s cameras his ignominious fate.

The reminiscences of the Kenyan soccer player Justus Anene Namai, who played in four different African countries — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia — give an indication of how such incidents still influence the game in other parts of Africa today: “I was playing in Tanzania in a team called African Lyon FC, and I also went to trials in another team, Yanga FC. They told me that I needed to be killed spiritually, and be raised again. I was told that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to play for the team. I was one of the victims of these practices. I refused to take part and they asked me to leave the team. I had to move to a different club because I refused to be part of it.” When asked what they meant by killing him spiritually, Anene elaborated: “They use a white bedsheet and sprinkle it with blood from a slaughtered chicken. That’s what they referred to as killing me. When they took the sheet off me, that was symbolizing my rebirth. That’s what they did to the other players. To play for that team you must do it. If they lose a match and you didn’t do it, they will lay the blame on you.”

Anene also had to contend with rituals during his time playing in the Kenyan league: “In Kenya the coach himself would tell us not to pass through the gate, instead we would climb over the wall to avoid their juju. Other times we would wait for the other team to go through the gate before we enter. The coach would make sure we do what the witch doctor had told him.”

At Africa’s premier soccer tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, the 24 qualified countries represent a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages and prowess on the pitch. The competition has grown from an eight-team format to encompass 24 of the continent’s best soccer-playing countries. At this level, much of the shenanigans that go on around witchcraft are more subtle, as the world’s eyes hone in on the best players from Africa, who largely ply their trade in the top leagues of Europe.

The beliefs are strongest among West and Central African countries. In an international club match in April 2012, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a witch doctor of the country’s popular TP Mazembe club bit off the head of a live chicken, splattering its blood in front of horrified Power Dynamos players from Zambia as they disembarked from their bus at the stadium before the start of the match. The visibly shaken Zambian team fell apart, suffering a huge 6-1 loss.

In the North African countries of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, there are also some cultural and traditional activities that mirror those found in sub-Saharan soccer.

Hamed Alade is a soccer agent who worked extensively in the region for several clubs. He told New Lines of his experiences: “If you look at the region, in Morocco, from Marrakech to the south there are the darker-skinned Moroccans there, Touareg people. It’s where they have snake charmers, they are dancing with snakes there. If you are not an insider, you cannot know. I know some villages in Morocco where they are practicing witchcraft.”

Alade emphasized that this practice extends beyond Morocco and is also prevalent in the continent’s most successful national team in the Africa Cup of Nations, the seven-time winner of the trophy, Egypt.

“After Morocco, the second country is Egypt where they practice African magic, juju. This is because of the historical Sudanese influence when the two countries were one. Here the influences from further south again [lead] to an intertwining of cultural influences. When Egypt won the Africa Cup in Ghana in 2008 against Cameroon, before the final they sacrificed many cows alive! These two countries, you must fear them!”

Alade vividly recalls an incident at the final of the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations when the host country, Tunisia, met Morocco to decide which team would be African Champion. He is convinced that it was not just the emotions of opposing supporters at play: “There was a clash, I was in Tunisia at that match. It was about juju people from Morocco for the final. The Tunisians flatly refused to allow them to enter the stadium at any cost.”

These incidents tend to be frowned upon by African soccer’s governing body, the Confederation of African Football. Yet while it tends to punish infringements that delay or disrupt matches, officials turn a blind eye if there is no disruption. This is to some extent understandable, given that the same administrators reflect their environments and have spent their lives influenced and molded by the same traditions and beliefs.

Justus Anene Namai, the Kenyan player, is convinced that at the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations the use of juju will be a feature of the tournament among the participating countries. “I believe that it will, because it is part of our tradition and culture,” he explained. “Teams like Ivory Coast, Ghana, have their own personal juju man. You will see them at the stadium, half-naked — big energetic people. You will see them at the tournament. Not all the African countries will have, but definitely some of them will be seen there.”

He acknowledges that things are done a little differently with the actual players and coaches who make up the national teams, and that it is more discreet. “It is more secretive because they don’t want people to know that they are doing it. If, for example, they were scheduled to stay at a certain hotel, they would change hotels quietly to be protected from their opponents’ magic.”

When Zambia won the 2017 Africa Youth Cup, beating Senegal in the final, an interesting conversation took place between the two presidents of their respective national soccer associations, Andrew Kamanga and Augustine Senghor. This was in the aftermath of the Senegalese team causing controversy by attempting to place an object in the Zambian goal in the stadium, infuriating 51,000 fans who were baying for blood. When Kamanga asked his counterpart about his team’s antics, Senghor responded, “But your team was praying on the pitch before the match, and we didn’t object or raise any complaints. Is there really any difference between what the two teams did, one praying to their god and the other following their traditional beliefs? They both have their own beliefs and acted on them.” He did, in a way, appear to have a point.

With Africa’s premier soccer tournament currently on, and hundreds of players competing in the world’s top leagues, the expectation might be that many of the old beliefs and traditions prevalent during the formative years of African soccer would have ceased to exist. It is clear, however, that tradition and culture continue to be key drivers in the sport across the continent. While Africa’s magic ways may have become more discreet and less visible, many of the old beliefs continue to play a role in how athletes and teams perceive the game.

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