During group play in the 2010 World Cup, the South African national team sought the services of a traditional healer—a sangoma—for help in its final match, against France. The stakes were high: win, and the Bafana Bafana would have a chance of advancing to the knockout round; lose, and they would become the first-ever tournament host not to advance out of group play.
According to the sangoma, a man named S'bonelo Madelo, the South African Football Association agreed to pay him 100,000 Rand (roughly $7,400 today). South Africa subsequently defeated France 2-1, but saw Mexico advance to knockout play thanks to the overall goal differential.
More than a year later, Madelo claimed that the SAFA had only paid him a tenth of his agreed fee, and vowed that he would use his powers to prevent the Bafana Bafana from winning any non-friendly match until his full price was met. From that point forward, the South African national team failed to win until June 2012—two matches after Madelo announced that the debt had been settled.
Coincidence? Many in South Africa believe otherwise. Spiritual assistance goes by a few names in the country: muti, juju, witchcraft, traditional medicine, black magic. There are also plenty of names for the people, mainly men, who make it: inyangas, juju-men, witch doctors, muti men.
Muti has always been a part of South African soccer. While its prevalence in domestic leagues has decreased over time, former players still involved in the sport say that it currently is given the same respect as any other method players might use to psych themselves up and gain an edge over the opposition.
In 2013, the South African Press Association reported that another inyanga offered to help the national team at the Africa Cup of Nations, and that the vice-president of SAFA was open to considering it: "We always welcome whatever help we can get to ensure Bafana Bafana do well." Muti made local soccer headlines as recently as June, when keeper Daniel Agyei claimed that he was forced out of his club, the Free State Stars, because he refused to participate in the rituals.
"It's true that these rituals are part and parcel of teams," said Teboho Moloi, who played for Orlando Pirates, one of South Africa's most popular and successful clubs. "It is no longer practiced as much as it used to be. It went with generation to generation."
The practice of muti originates from indigenous tribal religions, and it remains visible and viable even in a city even as large and modern as Johannesburg. On sidewalk walls, street lamps, and trash cans you'll often see flyers offering to help with your health, sex life, or financial fortunes. Some inyangas are even active on social media.
Within South African soccer, it's impossible to separate the history of muti from the country's history of racism and apartheid. Though largely excluded from the elite levels of the sport and SAFA, which formed as a white organization in 1892, black Africans and other racial groups set up their own associations and leagues, and brought their cultural practices and rituals.
By the 1930s, there were Football Associations for different racial groups, defined by the government: white, black, "coloured," and Indian, with the white league as the highest level and the most lucrative. There were no mixed leagues, but occasionally teams of different races played each other and non-white players were in the whites-only National Football League.
Weakened by international sports boycotts and white South Africans disengaging from soccer, the NFL collapsed in 1977, leaving a number of black and white teams to form a unified league. By the time a new SAFA formed in 1992 and apartheid ended in 1994, white players were a very small minority in South African soccer.
"An integral part of embracing the game has to do with incorporating African cultural practices into this European sport, and there's a whole number of ways that people chose to do it," said Peter Alegi, a social historian at Michigan State University. "In South Africa, you start to see evidence in the newspapers, as well as in the oral interviews that from very early on, various forms of magic, sorcery, were deployed and the use of religious specialists, of healers, of diviners, was quite common."
The aim of muti is threefold: protect players, enhance their performances, and intimidate their opponents. In practice, the rituals take many shapes and forms, depending on the prescriptions of the muti man. A watery mix or paste of unknown ingredients may be sprinkled or smeared on players' kits or bodies before a match. The same concoction could fill a tub or a bucket, which players would use to wash themselves. Sometimes this bathing ritual would happen at nearby rivers. The smell of the muti mix could be pungent, often offensive, the idea being that once opponents caught a whiff, their play would be affected for the worse.
In some cases, former players say, the muti mix included their own blood. "At times he would prescribe that a razor blade be used on your body—the way they scratch—and the blood flows out of you and they use that blood in all of that," said George "Best" More, who began his career in the 1960s and played for the Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs.
In addition to mixes, players could keep enchanted items on themselves or near the pitch. Moloi said that fans and opponents would sometimes notice the items and attempt to steal them. "They would see a goalkeeper bringing a black bag into the goal and throwing it there," he said. "When one of the supporters from the opposition side takes that bag and goes and throws it and then the goals start flowing, we're like, 'The muti bag was not there.'"
Sometimes substances and items would be placed around both the home and visitors locker rooms and burned to produce smoke. This made it difficult for visiting teams to use the locker rooms, for both practical and spiritual reasons. "You used to come from outside already in uniform, ready to play," More said, "because they were afraid that the locker rooms had been bewitched."
A team's muti was very closely protected. The jersey swapping or mingling with members of the other team that you see elsewhere would incur the wrath of the inyanga, which would often require players to go through the ritual again.
During More's time, the use of muti was highly prevalent in South African soccer. The only team he played for that didn't use muti was Pimville United Brothers, or Pubs, because of their Catholic background. The Pubs split into two rival clubs and later folded—"There's a belief that they died naturally because they were not using muti—they were not strong," More said.
Clubs and squads without a traditionally black African background didn't perform muti rituals on a team level, but that has not stopped them from trying to get a psychological advantage from the practice. Stanton Fredericks, a youth scout, began his career at Wits University in the mid-1990s before going onto a professional career in South Africa and internationally. While at Wits, Fredericks played the Umtata Bush Bucks, which practiced muti. Fredericks's teammate Ryan Hodgkin saw a chance to get in the heads of the opposition fans: he went to the Bush Bucks dugout and poured the water from his bottle on and around it. The fans were incensed. After Wits came away with a 1-0 win, Hodgkin couldn't help but take some credit for the result.
Muti is not exclusive to South Africa, as many players discovered when they ventured abroad. In 1976, More and Pirates travelled to Rhodesia to play against Dynamos. The Pirates fell behind early in the game. "We asked our goalkeeper, Patson Banda, 'What's happening? They're shooting straight at you and keep on ducking. What is wrong?'" More said. "Then he said he sees the big head of a lion. That's what he told us. We did not see the lion, but he saw the lion coming that day, that's why he was scared to chase the ball."
Moloi also played for a Turkish club, where he took part in a ritual akin to muti. "Before each and every game, a goat was slaughtered and the blood is there," he said. "And as you walk out of the tunnel, you dip in your finger and you just put a little blood on your forehead and then you walk on the field." His side in Colombia had another pregame routine, sprinkling water with herbs onto their cleats before playing. "I was shocked that even overseas they have their own beliefs in other things that we don't know of," Moloi said. "It is not only like it's an African cultural thing."
Former players still involved the game all said that today muti is far less prevalent, and that any players that still participate keep it quiet. "If the player would get something like that it would be a private thing that you wouldn't want to talk about," Moloi, now an assistant coach at Pirates, said.
Gordon Igesund, former player and now the coach of SuperSport United, said that he pays no attention to what players do in their own time to prepare, because it is not his place to judge their beliefs or impose his own.
"Those guys who want to get into the bath as if there's something in the bath, that's their problem," Igesund said. "They do it at the hotel, they do whatever the case may be. But when we get to the change room, that's all behind us and we focus on what we have to do.
"I think it's just a mutual respect that we've got have for each other in that sense. Because there are so many different religions in Africa and South Africa and the world."
While none of the players and coaches interviewed by VICE Sports believe in muti, they do believe it has some use for those who do practice—not as a magical game-changer but as a kind of psychological boost. While muti is often portrayed as malicious and dark, the South African soccer world sees it differently.
"It's not about evil," said Fredericks. "It's about your beliefs, it's about protecting yourself. It's about paying homage to your ancestors."