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Recipe for Victory: Hard Work and Pigeon

African soccer teams
rely on medicine men to ward off evil spirits and enemy shots, to the dismay
of some game administrators.


NAIROBI, Kenya — When the
four soccer teams from sub-Saharan Africa take the field for their World
Cup matches starting today, they will receive the usual support from coaches,
trainers and, in all likelihood, “team advisors” who are actually traditional
healers known as juju men.

    The juju
men won’t be offering tips on game strategy. Their job will be to facilitate
a win by discreetly scattering charms on the field, putting hexes on opponents
and smearing their teams’ goalposts with magic potions to keep the ball

juju men are commonplace at African soccer matches, their presence–and
influence–has been such an embarrassment that the sport’s governing body
in Africa recently banned such “team advisors” from being part of a squad’s
official entourage.

is everything,” stated the Cairo-based Confederation of African Football
before the African Nations Cup in January in Mali. The group said it instituted
the ban to avoid presenting “a Third World image” during the continent’s
premier sporting event.

    “We are
no more willing to see witch doctors on the [field] than cannibals at the
concession stands,” the CAF declared in a statement that caused juju men
from Senegal to South Africa to howl in protest.

are throwing out the baby with the bathwater just because some soccer administrators
wish to appease the white man more than honor African culture,” one traditional
healer from Swaziland responded.

    So far,
only the South African Football Assn. has announced that no traditional
healers would “officially” accompany its World Cup squad to Japan and South

    But soccer
commentators doubt that South Africa and the three other African countries–Nigeria,
Senegal and Cameroon–would leave their juju men home.

    “To depart
for an international competition without consulting or including sorcerers
is akin to going to an exam without a pencil,” the authoritative African
Soccer magazine said in a recent issue.

    The CAF
and, indeed, many Africans frown on juju, saying it has no role in modern
soccer. Since the CAF ban, columnists, soccer analysts and fans have been
debating in newspapers, Web sites and chat rooms about the efficacy of
juju and its history in African soccer.

fans agree that for the teams to be successful, they need to combine skill
and rigorous training with soccer savvy. But those who discount soccer
sorcery do so at their own peril. Just ask the Elephants.

    In 1992,
Ivory Coast, whose soccer team is nicknamed the Elephants, won the African
Nations Cup in a nail-biting penalty shootout against Ghana. Many Ivorians
credited the victory to a band of juju men enlisted by the sports minister
to give the national side an extra advantage.

the minister reneged on promises to pay the juju men, they promptly slapped
a hex on their national team. The result: a dismal 10-year slide for the

last month, Defense Minister Moise Lida Kouassi went to the juju men’s
village to beg forgiveness and make amends.

offering a bottle of liquor and the sum of” $2,000, he said, “so that the
village, through the perceptiveness of its wise men, will continue to help
the republic and, in particular, the minister of sport.” Africans are quick
to point out that players from Western nations practice their own form
of juju when they wear lucky charms, pray before an important match, cross
themselves after the national anthem or form a ritual huddle.

basketball superstar Michael Jordan could be accused of practicing a little
juju for wearing his old University of North Carolina shorts under his
NBA uniform.

    But in
Africa, there is little subtlety when it comes to superstitions.

    In a
10-page special report, African Soccer magazine recently documented how
teams splatter pigeons’ blood around the dressing room to ward off evil
spirits, bury the remains of animals in their opponents’ half of the field,
and sacrifice cows, goats and other animals to collect blood for players
to bathe in.

teams even slash their own players’ bodies with razor blades to rub a “magic
dust” into their bloodstream.

    “I used
to get cut so much I was just like a ventilator,” a former South African
player said. “They used to cut us everywhere…. They would use the same
razor blade on everyone.”

former Ivory Coast star recounted how at a previous African Nations Cup,
about 150 juju men set up camp in their hotel rooms, making players take
baths in large pots filled with various concoctions. Despite the elaborate
juju rituals, the Ivorians were kicked out in the first round, losing to
Egypt and Cameroon.

of soccer sorcery say that juju men merely psych up players. They are no
different from the sport psychologists that many U.S. professional teams
maintain on their staff.

Ambani claims to have motivated some of the best players in East Africa
during his 40-year career as a juju man.

    The chalkboard
tacked up to the front door of his one-room shack in the sprawling Kangemi
slum outside Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, advertises Ambani’s day job as one
of the hundreds of thousands of faith healers throughout Africa. They use
herbs and prayer to ancestral spirits to cure malaria, gonorrhea, even

the soccer season, Ambani is in high demand. The top soccer clubs in Kenya
and even coaches from the national team come calling, supplying Ambani
with the names of the opposing teams’ players.

week, the 74-year-old Ambani demonstrated how he puts the names in a small
terra-cotta urn, pours in the blood of chickens, goats and other animals,
and sprinkles in some of his special magic dust, which he keeps in a plastic
Skippy peanut butter container. After plugging the holes in the urn with
some goat horns, Ambani fires up the brew on a kerosene stove.

I do this, even though the other team may have good players, they will
never perform well,” he said, breaking out in broad grin. “They will miss
the ball and see things that are not on the field. I am a spoiler.”

    On some
occasions, Ambani slips into soccer stadiums at dawn to plant bones and
parts of animals at “essential places” in the field.

    For his
services, Ambani charges from about $20 to as much as $2,000–depending
on the level of the game.

who said he wore No. 7 when he played for his village soccer team in western
Kenya, said he enjoyed working and talking sports with soccer players.
But since he purchased a cellular phone, his business has become a virtual
Dial-a-Juju. His clients now simply telephone in their order. When they
don’t pay, he reverses the hex on them.

Musonye, secretary-general of the Council of East and Central Africa Football
Assns., which runs soccer in 13 countries, said he has urged his members
to stay away from Ambani many times, to no avail.

Africa, Musonye said, football associations use their sizable “research
budgets” to hire witch doctors and keep them happy. Musonye lamented that
the same groups pay their players small stipends and fail to correct their
poor diet or replace their ragged uniforms.

doesn’t work,” Musonye said. “The road to success lies in hard work, hard
work and more hard work.”

    He chuckled,
then said: “If juju worked, then African teams would win the World Cup
every four years, but that still hasn’t happened once.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith.