Many soccer players turn to traditional healers for good luck or inspiration before they take the field.
SOWETO, South Africa -- Deep in the heart of this dusty township of three million people, not far from Nelson Mandela's former house, around the corner from an arts and crafts market, behind a modest but well-kept brick house, sits what looks like just another corrugated tin shanty.
Turns out it is a ``Ndumba,'' a sacred hut.
Take a peek inside, and you find Kenneth Nephawe, a 63-year-old electrician-turned-Sangoma (traditional/holistic healer). He has removed his shoes and is seated on the floor on a reed mat, elephant tusk chunks in his hands, 40 jars of herbal powders and concoctions by his side. The remedies, called ``Muti,'' are made of African bushes, and are housed in old Nescafe and mayonnaise jars.
Nephawe is a huge fan of the Orlando Pirates, Soweto's soccer club, and is paying close attention to the World Cup. Over the years, he has gotten to know many soccer players because they have come to him seeking good luck and inspiration before big games. Forwards tend to be the most loyal customers, ``because they want good luck to score goals.'' He has been an ``advisor'' to three or four teams, he said, but cannot name them because it is confidential.
Traditional healers -- don't call them ``witch doctors'' -- have been known to sprinkle special powders over fields and have teams swim in crocodile-infested waters to ward off evil spirits. But what they mainly do, Nephawe said, is act as holistic healers and counselors.
Their practice is based on the belief that the spirits of dead ancestors guide and protect the living. Patients are asked to blow onto eight pieces of elephant tusks and throw them on the mat. The Sangoma interprets how the pieces lie. Each ``bone'' represents a family member.
He will tell an athlete that he is uptight, so he should call on the spirit of his deceased grandparent to relax him. Or, he'll tell him that his ancestors are happy with him, and therefore, he will have a good game. He will sometimes offer powdered remedies to put the athlete in a good frame of mind.
``But the powders don't work if the person doesn't believe,'' he said. ``This is not magic. It works only with belief and faith that it will work.''
The Confederation of African Football, eager to be taken more seriously around the world, recently banned traditional healers from associating with teams, and will fine a team if it sprinkles playing fields or dressing rooms with powders. But the use of medicine men has been part of African sport culture for a long time, and is still widespread.
Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroonian World Cup star, has been quoted saying that when they played Nigeria in a recent game, the Nigerian players would not enter the locker room before the match. ``They said they weren't going in because we'd put a spell on their dressing room,'' he said.
It is not much different from Boston Red Sox fans who believed in the Curse of the Bambino, NBA players who put one sneaker on before the other for good luck, and the victorious French World Cup players of 1998, who always sat in the same seats on the bus and listened to the same songs in the same order because they felt anything else would curse their chances.
Bongani Mngomezulu, the coach of a local soccer team, the Black Mambas, outside Durban, told the Inter Press Service News Agency: ''Many soccer coaches have mixed feelings about the `ancestors,' but the truth is we will use traditional healers to `straighten' our players because of the psychological boost it gives them. If you believe you have the ancestral spirits on your side, you can play like you are inspired.''
ON THE FIELD
Among the most legendary examples of occult mixing with African soccer:
In 1992, the Ivory Coast team won the African Cup of Nations after an 11-10 penalty shootout. Fans credited the Sangomas, who had been hired by the Ministry of Sport but never paid. The Shamans got mad and reportedly put a curse on the team for 12 years. Eventually, the government caved and paid the advisors $2,000 each. Soon thereafter, Ivory Coast qualified for its first World Cup.
In 2003, magic was blamed for a melee after Rwanda upset Uganda 1-0. Uganda had narrowly missed five easy shots, and started to believe the goal was jinxed. Turned out there was a pair of ``lucky'' goalie gloves tied to the net. ``Witchcraft! Cheaters!'' the Ugandan fans yelled, and then they spilled onto the field starting a riot.
Taxi driver Gift Ndou recalled a tale of a local club team that won a big game after the goalkeeper on one of the teams swore he saw a cooking pot coming toward him when the ball was shot. He jumped out of the way, the ball went in, and his team lost.
``There are a lot of people, maybe most people here, who still believe the magic works,'' Ndou said. ``It helps inspire people, including famous athletes. They figure it can't hurt to go to a Sangoma, and maybe it will help, give them a little dose of good luck.''
Perhaps England goalkeeper Robert Green ought to pay Nephawe a visit after his blunder against the United States. Couldn't hurt, right?