The Magic of Soccer

Not a hope in hell. That was the general prediction for Sowetan club Orlando Pirates at the 1995 finals of the African Champions Cup. Having scraped a 2-2 draw in the first leg, they faced a rampant ASEC Mimosa of Côte d'Ivoire in Abidjan.

For several days before the game, the South African players bathed in a special potion prepared by their muti-man, or traditional healer. At the stadium, they were instructed to follow the muti-man out of the changing rooms, keeping strictly to the left hand side of the passageways in order to avoid bewitchment.

It turned out to be one of the most one-sided matches in the history of African football. The Ivorians pounded the South African goal. Shot after shot went wide, hit the post or was spectacularly saved.

Then, with less than twenty minutes left, Jerry Sikhosana, the only Pirates man not in defence, latched onto a clearance. The two Ivorians marking him collided with one another and Sikhosana ran around them to score. ASEC resumed their barrage of Pirates' goal, but the South Africans held on to lift the continent's premier trophy.

It was such a ridiculous victory, there seemed to be no other explanation for it: Pirates' muti had worked.

For most African soccer lovers, the use of ritual - call it juju, muti or bo - is as much a part of the game as the soccer ball itself. Traditional healers have a wide variety of techniques, such as the preparation of infusions or talismans. These practices are not unique to football: from the fetish market at Akodessewa in Togo to the sangoma's shops in the shadow of Johannesburg's downtown skyscrapers, the customs of Africa are catered for with plant and animal products that range from herbal remedies to withered monkey hands.

Many players believe in the power of the spirits, others go along for the sake of morale. Despite his Christian faith, Lucas Radebe, former Leeds United and South African captain, does not quite reject the idea of ancestral guardianship. "These rituals are part of our tradition," he says.

Some believe in the magic, but only in specific instances. "It works," says one fan, Sipho, "but only at the goals, not in the field. When [Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper] Brian Baloyi plays he puts a black bag by the goal posts and the ball doesn't get past him. One day a black cat walked out of that bag. If people can see the muti, or someone finds it, it won't work for you anymore."

But there are many who no longer credit the old traditions of their people. They feel that football results are dictated by forces within the members of a team - their talent, their will to win, and so on - rather than by outside, supernatural forces. "Sometimes the team loses because the coach and the players don't understand each other," says Frank.

Is there a trend away from the use of juju? Mpho is one who feels that the practice of magic should end. "Instead, the players have to believe in themselves," he says.

There is the inevitable comparison with European football. "Do European teams have sangomas (traditional African healer)?" asks Itumeleng. "If they don't, why should we?"

It is true, these traditions have not spread to Europe, but then don't European players have their own form of juju? How many white footballers do not have a lucky charm, or a lucky pair of gloves, or a particular habit they repeat before every match? How many cross their hearts as they run onto the pitch? How different are these forms of belief to those of African players?