Juju, Jars, and Witchdoctors: The Phenomenon of Spiritual Doping in West Africa

BlytheRay takes a look at the intersection between witchcraft and football in West Africa

Football is widely considered to be the world’s most popular sport. With an estimated four billion fans and 250 million players across the globe, its universal appeal can largely be attributed to the passion, rivalries and athleticism that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers.

Rudimentary variations of the game were established as early as 1000BC, with the birth of modern football originating in England during the 12th century. However, deviations in cultural norms have had an impact on the sport, such as in parts of Africa, where the game has developed inextricable links to the practice of witchcraft.

Witchcraft is one of the world’s oldest and most complex belief systems, and many branches are rooted deeply in Africa’s rich and abundant history. Although shrouded in mystery, it has remained an enduring practice on the continent – many pre and post-colonial religious subcultures have voodoo at their locus, and thus football, being a large part of African culture, has naturally grown to incorporate these traditional beliefs.

This intersection between witchcraft and football is largely perpetuated by the concept of spiritual doping, which permeates the sport from grassroots leagues all the way through to national level.

Spiritual doping refers to the use of spiritual practices as performance enhancers, to secure a specific outcome, or to sabotage opponents. Players, coaches, and fans across the continent often turn to traditional mystical rituals for success, meaning that prohibited substances in Africa are not just defined by their chemical makeup, but by their magical properties too.

Although this pertains to various regions across Africa, juju, otherwise known as black magic, is mainly practiced in West African countries such Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. Juju is a closed practice which is largely veiled in mystery, but many athletes report enhancing their performance with spell jars, amulets, tree bark, and other tokens that have been imbued with spiritual powers by healers or witchdoctors.

Alongside these personal talismans, teams also engage in various pre-match rituals such as sprinkling substances on the pitch, performing incantations, burying items, or placing charms inside the goalposts.

During the 2002 Africa Cup, for example, Cameroonian coach Thomas Nkono was arrested for burying bones and spraying the field with an elixir to curse his Malian opposition. He was escorted off the pitch, and the match was cancelled.

Other methods of spiritually doping include drinking or bathing oneself in herbal concoctions, and commissioning healers to conduct spells.

Just as several Western teams have on-site doctors and physiotherapists, many African teams have resident witchdoctors. These practitioners claim to be able to transmute energy and make the opposition feel fatigued, or grant goal concessions by giving the ball the weight of a boulder.

The concept of black magic is difficult to pin down, largely because it is shrouded in secrecy and constantly evolving. Despite this, accusations of spiritual doping are often judged more severely than chemical drugging in many African countries, since juju underpins numerous regional religions. It is so frowned upon that the Confederation of African Football made the decision to ban the practice in 2016.

Interestingly however, the International Football Association Board and the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’) do not recognise spiritual performance enhancers as a form of cheating. Although WADA defines doping as “the use of prohibited substances and methods designed to enhance athletic performance”, this only extends to chemical interference.

These mainstream doping regulations are entirely founded on dominant Western thought models – an absolute separation of the body and spirit, or the biological and psychological. Whilst these legislations are unequivocally necessary, they do not consider the validity of non-Western belief systems where the spiritual and physical world are deeply intertwined.

This confluence of spirituality and sport is not exclusive to Africa, either. In 2015, the Thai owner of Leicester City famously flew in a renowned Buddhist monk to bless his players, before they went on to claim what ESPN deems “the most shocking title win in English football history.”

All of this begs the question – how should we decide the boundaries of what is cheating and what is not? One thing is clear – the rules of the African game permit a far more fluid and nuanced understanding of what doping and performance enhancing can really look like.

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