Blessed water, paper burning and spiritual healers: Religion and rituals in soccer

Prior to the second leg of the quarterfinals of the 2022 Confederation of African Football [CAF] Champions League, between Simba SC of Tanzania and hosts Orlando Pirates of South Africa, an incident sparked widespread furor on social media.

During the customary prematch pitch inspection, the visiting Tanzanians huddled around the centre circle. Clad in their crimson kits, the group drew the attention of fans in the stadium when they set fire to a paper in what seemed to be a ritual practice. After the match, Simba's coach at the time, Pablo Franco Martin, who was largely hired because of his time as Julien Lopetegui's assistant at Real Madrid, distanced himself from the "rituals" conducted by his players.

"Here [in Africa], many of you are playing these mind games." Martin said.

"This is something, from where I'm coming from [Spain], it's impossible to see. I'm not going to say that I like it, but to be honest, to burn something I think it's not going to help anyone. It's just a matter of superstition."

Simba would end up being eliminated in penalty shootouts against Pirates, the eventual finalists of the competition. A few weeks later, the Spanish coach was fired, and, according to experts, the principal reason for his dismissal and mediocre results was his inability to adapt to the uniqueness of African football.

Making sense of the arbitrary

Call it superstition, as Martin did, juju, grigri, muthi, spiritual healing, religious benediction ... whatever you call it, the truth is that stakeholders in almost every country of African football call upon the metaphysical in the hopes of influencing the outcome of a match. It is a phenomenon that runs against the grain of the micromanaged milieu of modern football, where tiny variables of the game are meticulously examined to gain the slightest of advantage. Fitness coaches consign players to no-nonsense diets, managers routinely fit their creative players into restrictive formations or systems and even the manner in which players communicate on social media is strictly monitored.

Yet, a player's personal belief system is an integral aspect of performance that remains beyond the control of coaches, trainers and administrators.

"Being low-scoring, football is a sport uniquely prone to the effect of chance. Superstition is simply an attempt by players and fans to make sense of randomness," Nigerian football writer Solace Chukwu told ESPN.

Take the case of the late Nigerian preacher, T.B. Joshua, and how from 2009 to 2013, the entire Nigerian footballing community was hanging onto every word uttered by the leader of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. On a weekly basis, the magnetic orator swooned his congregation with lighthearted humour, powerful spiritual insights and -- infamously -- outrageous sporting predictions during well-attended sermons that were broadcast across Nigeria and large regions of Africa via his television channel Emmanuel TV.

In order to confirm their berth for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Nigeria had to finish on top of Group B which meant outsprinting the Tunisian Carthage Eagles, then ensuring positive results against Mozambique and Kenya.

Africa's most populated country had missed out on the 2006 World Cup in Germany and was desperate to make its return to the global stage for the first African World Cup.

In three consecutive months, Joshua claimed to have correctly predicted the results of three matches: a 2-2 draw against Tunisia, a last-minute 1-0 win versus Mozambique and a comfortable victory to round out the group in Kenya.

Joshua's exploits made him a brand name in West Africa. Super Eagles legends Daniel Amokachi and Joseph Yobo went to see the preacher because of injury problems. The preacher created a club named My People FC which became the turning point in the lives of young footballers such as Ogenyi Onazi and ex-youth international Sani Emmanuel.

Felix Awogu, an author and friend of Joshua's, explained that Joshua acted as a kind of "psychologist" for the Nigerian national team and even fronted funds for the squad ahead of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

"When coach Stephen Keshi needed funds to start off training camp ... and ended up being very close to the squad. Players would run to the camera and shout, 'I love you T.B.J.,' dedicating their goals to him. He was kind of like their psychologist, they talked to him and he helped them believe in themselves," Awogu said.

Against all odds, Keshi and his squad of players won the 2013 Cup of Nations. It had been 19 years since Nigeria had last been crowned Kings of Africa, and they had failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations just the year before. Some players, such as Azubuike Egwuekwe, would later admit that they had fully expected to crash out by the quarterfinal.

The result would further lend credibility and popularity to Joshua and his visions for many fans. Others preferred more mechanical interpretations and waxed lyrical about Keshi's coaching exploits. The unity that reigned within the squad, however, was undeniable -- and some of that boiled down to Joshua's willingness to provide financial and emotional support to the Super Eagles.

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Unfairly tainted

Including a person of faith in national team delegations is a totally accepted practice across the continent. During the 2010 World Cup, the Algerian national team famously insisted on traveling with a raqi, or imam, to lead Friday prayers for the team and -- if need be -- exorcise curses or misfortune.

A source within the Togolese FA told ESPN that, under the tutelage of former boss Gabriel Ameyi, it was commonplace for pastors to be included in tournament delegations and to lead group prayers. Prior to the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations final between Ghana and Ivory Coast, Ivorian sports minister Rene Diby invited 10 healers from the village of Akradio to attend the final, which the Elephants won on penalty kicks. However, the men of faith were stiffed of the bonuses they were promised in case of victory. Over the following decades, the "Akradio" curse became the go-to explanation whenever Drogba and Co. disappointed.

A damning report of an audit of the Senegalese Football Federation at that memorable 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea found that the equivalent of €140,000 was spent on "improving psychological environment" and "social affairs" -- all euphemisms for the employment of several marabouts.

Although such rituals have largely subsided, some federations find ways to surreptitiously continue their practice.

In a World Cup qualifier versus Burkina Faso in late 2021, a member of the Algerian staff recited some verses of the Quran over an open water bottle and subsequently splashed the newly blessed water across the pitch and on their opponent's goal.

"Personally, I think it adds colour and uniqueness to the African game," Chukwu said.

"If it hurts no one, then what's the trouble really? It's no different from adherents of more conventional faiths crossing themselves, pointing to the sky, kneeling in prayer or doing a hop and a skip. Unfortunately, Africans have gotten a bad rap for superstitious practices that are deemed perverse and ignorant simply because they often hark back to traditional religion."

Both the Simba vs. Orlando Pirates burning incident and the Algeria vs. Burkina Faso incident riled up ridicule on the internet.

"Completely surreal" tweeted one French news aggregate account. "Unfortunately, muthi doesn't play football. If it did, African teams would be World Cup winners by now," tweeted one Orlando Pirates fan. Another suggested that the CAF would do well to clamp down on the muthi, saying, "I think the Big Bosses in football need to discuss this thing of muthi usage on football fields."

Historically, CAF has resorted to radio silence concerning such matters. Instead, the governing body will clamp down on superstitious practices by strictly regimenting access to the stadium or punishing perpetrators for tampering with the field of play. During the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, for example, Thomas Nkono, a lynchpin of the Cameroonian golden generation of the 1980s and at the time Cameroon's goalkeeping coach, was accused of trying to illegally access the pitch and implant an object under the turf. He was immediately handcuffed by Malian police and even struck "just a few times," as a local journalist put it at the time.

Nkono was suspended for a year after the match for trying to access the pitch without accreditation, but CAF made no mention of juju or sorcery.

For Salim Masoud Said, an expert on East African football, appeals to the supernatural should always be seen as an extra, supplemental activity.

"If you don't train hard and solely rely on superstition or juju, you'll end up embarrassing yourself. But that is the thing, it is not as if these players don't train ... juju is just something cultural that many Africans do that is extra -- kind of like a good luck charm," he said.

Mind over matter

Just as the Nigerian Christian footballers attribute some of their success in the 2013 AFCON to Joshua, for several decades now, African Muslim athletes have testified about their improved performances while fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Nigerian NBA player Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon was named the league player of the month in February 1995 when he was observing Ramadan. The Houston Rockets centre averaged a whopping 29.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game during the holy month. At the time, he was quoted as saying, "I was better in Ramadan -- more focused and lighter. Fasting made me stronger and my stats were more efficient."

When a board of medical experts in Qatar compiled comprehensive research on the effects of fasting on an athlete's performance in Ramadan, it concluded that there was no conclusion on if performance is positively or adversely affected by fasting.

"There is no global, unique result for the Ramadan study," said Yacine Zerguini, an Algerian surgeon who participated in the study.

"In my opinion, each case must be treated individually. One has to remember that it is highly likely that the effects of Ramadan are also linked to the spiritual qualities and physical capabilities of each athlete. Faith and belief is a big factor. If players believe fasting will have no impact on their performance, then it probably will not. If they have doubts about that, then they better eat."

In a manner that very much resembles the placebo effect, prematch superstitions have been known to be effective in reducing stress, boosting confidence and giving an athlete the illusion of control in sports that can, at times, seem arbitrary.

Psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted various different case experiments in which superstition triumphed. In one the experiments, for instance, participants were given either a lucky golf ball or an ordinary one before being asked to putt. Those with a lucky ball were much more successful.

Therefore, a more accurate way of understanding superstition in African football is not if a footballer or supporter using religion is actually tapping into a metaphysical realm through ritualistic practices.

Rather, it's understanding the significance of belief in mastering the arbitrary, managing nerves and increasing faith on the football pitch that should lead to cultural comprehension.