Magical Thinking: A Secret Edge for South Africa at the World Cup?

Nicolas Brulliard, Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2010

As the second-lowest ranked team in the World Cup competition, South Africa is expected to lose its opening match Friday against Mexico. But to ensure victory, Michael Mvakali recommends a simple fix: a concoction of plants and animal limbs.

“You use the horse’s foot and the ostrich leg, you mix it with some herbs and you put it on the players, on their knees and their legs, and when they kick, even the goalkeeper can’t get hold of that ball,” said Mr. Mvakali, a practitioner of traditional magic. While he hasn’t provided services to the national team, he says he has devised potions that helped other soccer players.

Many here think the South African team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana, or “The Boys,” can win–and not only because it enjoys home-field advantage in the first World Cup held in Africa. Some believe the team may also benefit from a little muti–a Zulu word that refers to witchcraft and traditional medicine, as well as the powders and potions used in the practices.

The team insists that it engages in no muti. {snip}

Muti is present in many aspects of South African life, used to solve infertility problems, get a spouse back or find work. In a nation that reveres soccer, home teams and opponents are popular recipients of blessings and curses. Many teams employ their own sangoma–a traditional healer with powers of divination. In attempts to influence games, sangomas may smear muti on the walls of dressing rooms, have players urinate on bags of dirt brought from their home field to away games, or bury animal parts in the soccer field.

Witchcraft isn’t exclusive to South African soccer. In 2002, Cameroon’s assistant coach was arrested after police accused him of dropping black magic on the field ahead of an important game against Mali (Cameroon won 3-0.) In neighboring Swaziland last year, a new artificial turf field was damaged when chicken feathers were buried in the center of it before a league match.

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Neal Collins, a British sports journalist who grew up in Pretoria and played for a South African team in the 1980s, remembers his team’s sangoma preparing a potion for a particularly important game. “I swear to this day that there was a–and this is going to sound stupid–there was a white lady’s finger on the top [of the potion] with nail polish on the end and a ring.”

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Whether muti works remains the subject of debate. In February, the chairman of the medical committee at FIFA, the organization that governs the World Cup, called on anti-doping authorities to investigate traditional medicine. But World Anti-Doping Agency Director General David Howman said the matter was better left to local authorities.

Winton Hawksworth of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport said stimulants are common in traditional African medicine. For instance, bulrush, an aquatic plant, is believed to increase blood flow and improve performance. Mr. Hawksworth said he doubts many soccer players would have easy access to these ingredients, but noted the compounds aren’t identifiable in doping tests.

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