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Football Gazing: Sports and Superstitions in South Africa

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

June 22, 2010

Sometimes a lucky t-shirt isn’t enough to win the game…

In February this year, a family was murdered in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. Accused of practicing witchcraft, a sixty-five-year-old woman and her three young granddaughters were stabbed to death by vigilantes on a modern-day witch hunt.1

Every year in South Africa, hundreds of arson attacks, violent assaults, and brutal killings are perpetrated against victims accused of sorcery, and these are only the cases that are reported.

However, one person’s bad magic is another person’s good magic. Ironically, the very same witchcraft that is blamed for death, disease, and natural disaster is popularly practiced in sport. Witches in the villages of South Africa are stoned, stabbed, or burned to death, but in the cities they are enlisted to win games. These witches, known as sangomas, aren’t good sports. They bless the home team and curse the opposing team.

Many athletes are famous for their superstitions. Some wear lucky clothing, while others carry good-luck charms, eat a special meal before the game, or practice crippling routines and rituals. The superstitions are praised for a win and changed (not blamed) following a loss.

Over the next month millions will tune into the World Cup, held in South Africa this year. In its eighty-year history, this is the World Cup’s first visit to the African continent. Instead of lucky t-shirts, favorite baseball bats, and obsessive-compulsive rituals, many South African athletes prefer voodoo, hoodoo, and juju.

Why have mascots when you can have magic instead? Known as muti, magic is a part of everyday life for many South African people. Voodoo, Santeria, and other forms of black magic are practiced, while witchcraft accusations and attacks are made out of fear, or vengeance. Animals are sacrificed for potions and amulets, and ritual killings are common, after which the victims become spare parts for spells. Some South Africans would visit a witch doctor before a medical doctor, but the former do more than just heal with herbs. These traditional healers use sympathetic magic to land you a job and use woo to woo back your husband or wife. Muti is so commonplace in South Africa that it has commercialized; popular brands of magical products have expanded from the botanica to the supermarket.

In Africa, magic is believed to be a force at play when sports are played. During a game in Congo, a lightning bolt killed an entire visiting team, leaving the home team unscathed. Many blamed the catastrophe on a curse.2

For some South African athletes, magic is as vital as the training, and the witch doctor is as vital as the coach. But the players might not always confess to this. Team members tend to deny their use of magic, not because it would make them look silly, but because admitting that magic was used supposedly undermines its power. Magic is used at all levels of football, from beginners to professional teams. It functions in similar ways to western superstitions in sport; the rituals give confidence and confirmation bias to the players. Magic supposedly provides the teams with not only a performance edge, but a spiritual edge too.

Muti is used in many ways for sport. Spirit communication is employed to determine a player’s fortune. Crystal balls are used for football; bone divination and scrying with mirrors predict the outcome of a game. Juju priests and sangomas perform magical rituals to ensure the success of their team and the failure of the opponents. Smudge sticks are burned in the athletes’ homes and their change rooms before a game. Players wear charms and talismans in their socks or underpants to bring good luck and repel bad luck. There are even concerns that some players use traditional drugs containing natural stimulants that are not detected by modern doping tests. One source states, “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.”3

This reveals some practical concerns about the application of muti. In one recent case, a football field was vandalized when sacrificed animals were buried under the turf. An endangered animal is being taken to the edge of extinction in South Africa because of muti. The population numbers of the rare Cape vulture have declined sharply due to reduced food sources, electrocution by electricity pylons, and the practice of harvesting their heads in the belief that “smoking the brains” of these birds will predict the results of the World Cup.4

However, some claim these sporting beliefs are on the wane with the introduction of European coaches. Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the Banfa (“The Boys”) team, is from Brazil, not South Africa. However, even if the coach doesn’t believe in magic, the magic still exists for South African people. To guarantee the success of the South African team, a group of sangomas visited the new Soccer City stadium near Johannesburg and blessed the pitch by slaughtering an ox.5

So, where’s the evidence that magic works for the South Africa national football team?

There isn’t any. Having won only a single game during two World Cup tournaments and ranked 83rd in the world, the South African soccer team is the second worst in the competition…


1. Christopher Szabo, “Family butchered in South Africa by ‘Witchcraft’ vigilantes,” Digital Journal. (accessed June 12, 2010).

2. “Lightning Kills Football Team,” BBC News. (accessed June 12, 2010).

3. Nicolas Bruliard, “Magical Thinking: A Secret Edge for South Africa at the World Cup?” The Wall Street Journal. (accessed June 12, 2010).

4. “SA ‘Muti’ magic by smoking brains of vultures to predict WC results killing them off,” South Africa News. (accessed June 12, 2010).

5. “South Africa’s World Cup witch-doctor,” Paranormal Magazine. (accessed June 12, 2010).

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]