Sunday 30 December 2012

Voodoo, graveyards and impotency: Is witchcraft rife in African football?

Voodoo, graveyards and impotency. Alex Lawson delves into the strange world of witchcraft in football

Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson's wife
claimed to have used 'evil powers'
When Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson was released by Blackpool last year he probably believed he had reached the nadir of his patchy career in English football. However, claims by his wife earlier this year that she had used witchcraft to affect his loss of form towards the end of his time at the Tangerines, as well as his alleged loss of form in the bedroom, which left the veteran of two World Cups more embarrassed than a secret cross-dresser outed at a team building away day. 

Kingson's wife Adelaide Tawiah, who had originally claimed on Nigerian TV to have used "evil powers" to affect his form, has since retracted the statement, claiming she was possessed in the broadcast from the Synagogue Church of All Nations at the time. The incident has raised an oft occurring question - how rife is witchcraft in African football?

In several African nations, most notably Ghana and Kenya, witchdoctors are not an uncommon sight at a football match while teams have been known to spend the night before a big match in a graveyard to channel what is termed 'Juju magic'. 

Former Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic blasted his players for using black magic in a leaked document following the African Cup of Nations earlier this year. The Serbian said that some players had used "black power to destroy themselves" which had created deep divisions in the squad and caused the Black Stars to be sent crashing out of the competition in a shock defeat to Zambia at the semi-final stage. 

Ghanian Football Association president Kwesi Nyantakyi claimed the team was deeply fractured. "During the competition we observed that some players played to achieve personal fame, prominence and excellence to the detriment of the team," he said.  
Former Ghana midfielder Laryea Kingston, who had been accused of using black magic by fans, claimed that his teammates often "put sin in their shoes" to appease Juju forces but he was not involved in the practice. Mohammed Abu, who won the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil with Ghana said he had seen players deliberately miss penalties for fear that if they scores their family will die. "Everyone is asking for help but this evil, this devil is deceiving you," he said, adding that a witchdoctor once made him drink a 'lucky' drink which was in fact Schnapps and he was forced to play drunk.

But the phenomenon is not just confined to Ghana. Earlier this year, Kenyan side Shikaadabu blamed their 6-0 drubbing by the fantastically-named Hippo Youngsters on their archrivals Vimwanga who they claimed had bewitched their goalkeeper. Moreover, Kingstone FC threatened to abandon a match with Mombasa region side Super Eagles after claiming they found their opponents "smearing themselves in ndumba (voodoo) before the match", according to manager Said Mwinyi. The claims were not entertained by league officials and the debate continues to rage in the coastal region of the East African country. 

The issue of witchcraft in football will ultimately only escalate if it becomes increasingly evident players are altering the outcome of matches deliberately to satisfy evil spirits they believe will do them harm. Those who do express these beliefs are likely to incur the wrath of their managers, league officials and fans and are likely to suppress their activities. 

In a game that has the fine margins of luck, pressure and scrutiny that football has, players are striving to influence the game through whatever means possible. Richard Kingson, meanwhile, may have to set up a meeting with Pelé about a shipment of those little blue pills he recommended.

English clubs need to downsize stadiums for the sake of fans

Alex Lawson suggests that some English clubs could follow Italian clubs' lead and reduce the capacity of their stadium.

Market forces are against football clubs looking to increase their fan base. Sure, Manchester City and Chelsea are increasingly finding a bigger and bigger global fan base but the likes of Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton in the North West where competition for support is rife as well as clubs like Coventry and Middlesborough suffer from swathes of empty seats on a weekly basis.
The Old Lady's new home, The Juventus Stadium
Greed in the English game forcing up ticket prices, combined with competition from other sports and activities for kids, have combined to drive fans away from British grounds. Even some of the most ardent supporters have said no to choosing between buying a season ticket and having a holiday at an equivalent cost. As such a number of clubs have found themselves in large, newly-built modern grounds missing missing the crucial final piece: fans.
But over in Italy several clubs are taking action. The Old Lady Juventus last season moved into their new surroundings - the imaginatively named Juventus Stadium - after years of empty seats at the much disliked Stadio delle Alpi which was built for the 1990 World Cup. The reasons behind the stadium’s average attendance being a pitiful third of its 67,000 capacity are plentiful but centre upon bad sight lines due to the running track, a poor atmosphere and a dearth of transport links. But fundamentally Juventus were a team ill-matched to their ground. While claiming to be Italy’s ‘best supported’ club with around 11 million fans, the residents of Turin chose to watch Torino while Juventus sold out grounds in Milan, Parma, Palermo and Bologna when they played a number of ‘home’ matches elsewhere in 1994-95 to try to the alleviate the problem. The new ground, built on the same site, is relatively compact - seating 41,000 fans - and has a tight rectangular shape beneath an oval roof in a more British style. In short, it suits The Old Lady like a pile of knitting on a winter’s afternoon.
But it is not just Juventus that have come to terms with the failings of their long-term home. The San Siro, one of Europe’s most majestic and iconic grounds, will no longer house the blue side of Milan’s famous duelling rivals. Inter Milan last month revealed China Railway Construction Corp will invest in its new stadium, moving out of the 80,065 capacity San Siro after ground sharing with Milan since 1946. The new Internazionale stadium will have a capacity of 60,000 and construction would start next year, due for completion in 2017, although a location has not been confirmed. Meanwhile, arch rivals AC Milan will be hoping the team can improve gates and atmosphere after recording their lowest ever season ticket sales of 23,000, some of which were returned after the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Similarly, Udinese are also planning to redevelop and modernise their Stadio Friuli, revising its capacity down from 42,000 to 25,000.
For British clubs keen on expansion, these Italian decisions could sound a note of caution. A number of traditionally big clubs including Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday have proposed expansions on top of older but atmospheric grounds. West Ham, too, could think twice before trading up to the larger Olympic Stadium in favour of the cauldron of Upton Park, if a deal is ever done. The East Londoners are also known to heavily discount ticket prices at midweek matches suggesting the better fortunes of other London clubs is beginning to hurt attendances.
Ultimately, clubs need to ensure that their stadiums reflect both the size of their fanbase at present and allow a proportion of extra capacity if the team hits good times. A winning combination of an impassioned fanbase and modern facilities remains both an achievable and common aspiration.
Article originally appeared on

Monday 3 December 2012

Could St Pauli become the next Ebbsfleet United?

St Pauli are an altogether very unique club. Founded on left wing principles, resurrected from obscurity by an openly gay former chairman and fiercely feminist despite being situated in a district where objectifying women is commonplace. 
The Millerntor stadium
Hamburg's second team and drifting in mid-table in Germany's second division, many could be forgiven for being surprised at St Pauli's position as one of the most ardently followed clubs in world football. However, the team's transformation in the 1980s from lower league also-rans to a punkish, anti-facist movement fronted by the Totenkopf - the skull and crossbones flag - has perked interest worldwide. 

Approaching the Millerntor stadium on Saturday during an annual trip to Germany to reap the delights of the Christmas markets, the difference from the average trip to the Ricoh Arena are obvious. Fans can openly drink outside the ground, stopping only to recycle their empty bottles, there are as many mohawks, piercings and band hoodies as there are oversized guts and Alan Partridge jackets. 

The game itself is a Sting-like tantric affair, always threatening to kickstart into life as opponent Kaiserslautern boss the early exchanges before St Pauli play through the middle to get the battle their way back into the game. The much-lauded atmosphere itself doesn't disappoint, Pauli's bouncing and flag waving is matched by their rivals loud support, orchestrated amusingly by a bloke sat atop a fence not watching the game in a Bez-like role. Kaiserslautern hit the post no less than three times in the first half but it's St Pauli who edge it in a game with plenty of quality and not befitting its division. Daniel Ginczcek, on load from Borussia Dortmund, knocks in a scrappy finish, almost fluffing an open goal before the ball bounces back off the post and into his shins. The goal is followed, as ever, by Blur's Song 2 booming out over the PA and the bloke next to me - an Eintracht Braunschwieg fan - is pleased his side's rivals have been denied and he rolls off towards the dubious Reeperbahm red light district. 
I meet one of St Pauli's most ardent fans
The experience has been a unique one from the busker screaming hardcore tunes in a rasping husk outside to the carefully crafted graffiti in the ground's underbelly, this is a match day like no other. 

But a key concern has been hanging over St Pauli in recent years. Since the club dug itself out of €1.95m of debt through initiatives like a 'drink for St Pauli' day where local landlords donated 50 cents a beer, their fortunes on and off the pitch have been largely positive. Flamboyant ex-chairman Corny Littmann left the club after its promotion to the Bundesleiga in their centenary year in 2010 but not before building a global brand centred on the Totenkopf. 
The Kaiserslautern faithful and a pretzel seller

The club's shop generates £7m a year and a quick whip round it revels why. Official shirts sold at €70 are snapped up, as are St Pauli mugs, stickers and even a sandwich toaster. For a club so leftie it played in Cuba to support president Fidel Castro and hosted the FIFA Wild Cup in 2006 to support smaller unrecognised nations like Tibet and Zanzibar, this ruthless capitalism does not sit comfortably. Moreover, while I snaffle up admittedly one of the very last seats in the ground, the €42 price tag (doubtless not representative of the entire ground) does not fit with German football's cheap tickets/large crowd principles. 

The brand that has been built - club shop staff are even given 'crew' hoodies to look like punk roadies - has not gone unnoticed. St Pauli's values have attracted a global following (supporters groups meet in Edinburgh and London to watch matches every Saturday) however it is this popularity which is undermining their unassuming, localised principles. 

A St Pauli sandwich toaster
So what can the club do? If they shut down the shop and discourage fans in spreading the word it will undermine the camaraderie built up. Modern football is big business and financial stability is vital If they continue to exploit the brand further, it may turn off some key fan groups. Fan pressure group Social Romantiker is already fighting excessive advertising and corporate seating in the stadium. It may be interesting, therefore, to see whether St Pauli could exploit their fan-owned spirit to allow supporters to take on an Ebbsfleet Untied or Venezia model where fans vote on transfers or elsewhere where it's been taken further and supporters go online to vote on substitutions. 

St Pauli fans already own 51% of the club under German football association rules so it may not be a huge step. Fan power has proved a controversial topic, those on the terraces always believe they know best but often harbour idiotic thoughts. However, if St Pauli are to drag their ethics into the 21st century then it has to be considered. 
Alex Lawson