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AFCON and juju – an attempt to explain African football and superstition

Football – wherever it is played in the world – carries a streak of chaos.

A low-scoring sport is prone to wild swings in momentum and fans long to make sense of the unexplainable. Add a dose of national pride and the fraught nature of the elimination format of knockout tournament football, and the Africa Cup of Nations creates a particularly ripe atmosphere for superstition.

Fans can shrug off freak results. But a string of bizarre occurrences often leads to suggestions of something else.

At AFCON, that means talk of juju. It is a nebulous and catch-all term, trying to cover an array of practices that do not fit anything found in major organised religions. Be it called juju, voodoo, black magic, muti, otumokpo or something else; there is the idea that AFCON sees players, fans, and even coaches turn to alternate forces to affect games.

Here are some examples:

  • A Nigerian FA official running onto the pitch mid-game to remove a charm from the back of Senegal’s goal during a quarter-final in 2000.
  • Members of the Cameroonian coaching staff being caught placing a charm on the pitch before the semi-final against Mali in 2002.
  • Ghana fans carrying pots containing leaves and liquid to scare away devils before their opening game against Guinea in 2008.
  • Ghana’s Andre Ayew sprinkling a white powder onto the pitch before the 2015 AFCON final against Ivory Coast.

The turn of the 21st century has seen the Confederation of African Football (CAF) make a concerted effort to stop attempted instances of juju at football games.

A voodoo priest in Benin tries to bring luck to their team at Afcon in 2019 (PROSPER DAGNITCHE/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are no more willing to see witch doctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands,” read a 2008 statement from CAF, which explained that juju feeds into harmful stereotypes of Africa as a wild and backwards continent.

This year’s AFCON has seen very few headlines around juju or other nefarious influences. Teams are winning and losing as a by-product of well-worked set-piece routines or smartly coached attacking theories rather than other oddities.

Football’s ability to make people ask a higher power for help is not exclusive to Africa. Fans have grown used to seeing a player making the sign of the cross or making the Muslim prayer, dua, before entering the field of play. The idea of visiting a place of worship to pray ahead of a big derby game can be found in Ilford, the Ivory Coast and everywhere in between.

English football is no stranger to asking for stranger, non-religious assistance. Fans may remember 2002, when a national newspaper printed David Beckham’s foot on the front page and asked readers to place their hand on the image at noon to send healing energy towards his injured metatarsal. When those expressions of spirituality are explained to a non-Western audience, the conversation often becomes one of witchcraft.

“Superstitions are superstitions,” says Dipo Faloyin, journalist and author of the book Africa is not a Country. “The belief that something beyond sporting ability can intercede is universal, whether it’s through your chosen deity or your grandfather’s lucky scarf; though I do think we can draw the line on placing curses on your sporting enemy”.

It is worth understanding the back story to African football in order to grasp juju fully.

A Cameroon assistant is dragged out after Malian policemen arrested him on the edge of the pitch, accused of having thrown a gri-gri (magical item) onto the pitch in 2002 (FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

The effects of conflict and colonialism are hard to avoid in African football. Professionalism in the sport has been hard to establish on a continent where many young countries have encountered political instability and other issues. Kick-rush football was long the dominant playing style in Africa, with players honed on pockmarked and substandard pitches favouring fast counter-attacks and strong wing play over possession-based football.

Like many African resources, it can be challenging for nations to develop and keep their best footballing talents before those in Europe pilfer them. Look into many of the idiosyncrasies of football in Africa, and you’ll eventually find a link to a nation’s colonial heritage. Before one sneers at the chaos of the football found in the AFCON, one has to make a special effort to understand the conditions that fostered it.

“Too many people around the world come to anything that involves Africa with scepticism and expectations of chaos and disorganisation,” adds Faloyin. “But as football tournaments go, AFCON is uniquely chaotic, largely because these are very young countries with young football associations that are still trying to piece many things together, including developing local leagues.

“These nations have had very little time to catch up with the rest of the world. As England were winning their one and only World Cup, a newly independent Nigeria was still dealing with the ramifications of colonialism that would lead months later to a brutal civil war.”

“Football was brought to Africa by the colonisers. Literally. It arrived in the harbours of coastal cities in Africa on colonial boats, writes academic and freelance journalist Buster Kirchner. “Football was introduced, especially by the British colonial mission but surely also elsewhere, as an element in the so-called civilisation project. Football was a way in which the foreign rulers aimed at indoctrinating the indigenous people since football was perceived as bringing discipline, servitude, and a healthy lifestyle to the colonised subjects.”

Kirchner has written extensively on Zambian football and its importance to the country. In 1914 the nation passed The Witchcraft Act, which states that witchcraft — as well as the naming and imputation of witchcraft — is punishable by law. Every post-colonial government has upheld the Act yet accusations of juju have followed the national team for years.

In the run-up to the nation’s triumph at AFCON 2012, they won a number of games by a single goal, often scored by striker and team captain Christopher Katongo. Simple coincidence, but a narrative grew that Katongo had used juju to “lock” the goalposts after scoring, wanting to take the plaudits as the game’s difference maker. Things got to such a point that the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) moved to publicly condemn the rumours on social media, saying that those responsible should “be shamed in the nearest time because you have no appreciation for good things”.

Christopher Katongo was ‘accused’ of juju (Liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images)

Speculated instances of juju in football have been known to create tension. Players have been known to pause play if they believe part of the pitch has been tampered with by a charm or spell. In 2016, a Rwandan Premier League match garnered headlines when striker Moussa Camara was seen fiddling with an item by the opponent’s goalpost, moments after his headed attempt on goal hit the woodwork. Camara was soon chased by opposition players and the goalkeeper before intervention from the referee. Three minutes later, he scored the equaliser in 1-1 draw and was accused of using juju to unlock the goal. Shortly afterwards FERWAFA (Federation of Rwanda Football Association) moved to fine any player seen to take part in witchcraft 100,000 Rwandan Francs (£96 ;$120).

Vedaste Kayiranga, then-vice president of the Rwanda FA said: “In FERWAFA statutes, we don’t have any law punishing the use of witchcraft because there is nowhere in the world where it has been proven that it can influence the outcome of a game.

“However, with the violence between players because of allegations that one team is using it, we have decided to enact laws.”

Federations strongly discouraging juju means it has been less present at this AFCON, at least publicly. But that doesn’t mean the feelings, superstitions and fear of outside influence are any less. For players and fans.

(Top photo: Mohamed Hossam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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