HARARE, Zimbabwe – Animal bones, hair, feathers and river pebbles are secreted around sports fields. The goal posts have been sprinkled with urine. The soccer players, some of whom have smeared ancient herbal potions on themselves, take the field.
It's a typical soccer match in Zimbabwe, and the presence of such charms shows that, among many teams in Africa, it is as important to have the magical properties of witchcraft on your side as it is to have fit and talented players.
Now, the CAPS United team in Zimbabwe is calling foul after their rivals, a team called How Mine, allegedly used "juju," or witchcraft, during a key match this month. CAPS United said its officials checked out the dressing room of its opponents 15 minutes after the match started and found suspicious objects, including lighted candles and bottles of liquid arrayed in an 11-man team formation.
How Mine wound up winning the Nov. 10 match, and insisted the candles and filled bottles were used for Christian prayers. The win sent the team to the Premier League finals to contend for a $200,000 cup title on Nov. 30.
How Mine coach Philani "Beefy" Ncube, a self-avowed devout Christian worshipper, has denied he uses magical powers invoked by spirit mediums to influence matches and scare opponents, citing his membership in a church whose pastors use candles and bottles of water as Christian offerings.
Zimbabwean soccer administrators are investigating complaints that CAPS United officials broke into the How Mine dressing room after kick-off, and claimed to have found objects used in juju. Police will also investigate the break-in allegations that were likened to a burglary. Colonial era "suppression of witchcraft" laws have not been repealed or enforced since independence in 1980, except in murder charges involving killings for human organs used in tribal rituals.
The use of witchcraft is reportedly common in soccer across sub-Saharan Africa.
"It is part of a belief system in Africa but it is a taboo to speak out about it," a leading Zimbabwe soccer administrator said. "Juju is rampant, it's part of the game."
The official insisted on anonymity because of the taboo nature of the subject.
George Kandiero, head of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association who is a practicing herbalist and spirit medium, said losing teams "are always coming to us to find a good remedy, a good muti," the local word for traditional medicine. "Teams, big and small, want to enhance their performance or confuse their opponents."
Some players in Zimbabwe visit healers known as n'angas, take herbal inhalations of steam and scented smoke ahead of a match. Some sleep overnight in a house where ancestral spirits are believed to descend as a guiding omen.
Among juju charms are body parts of hyenas, snakes, crocodiles and owls. Gourds containing scales of snake skin, misshapen tubers of cactus, knots of river reeds, dead lizards, dry blood or sheep's offal have been hidden in sports arenas. Female witches are hired to sniff out and neutralize spells cast by others.
The most effective antidote to a rival's juju is believed by many to be baboon urine, either on the soccer field, near the gates to the ground, at the players' tunnel or behind the goal. Coarse salt can also be scattered to ward off perceived evil spirits and spells and a player's feet and hands can also be rubbed with animal or human urine or herbal potions, the administrator said, leading to a reluctance between opposing players to shake hands before a match.
Associated Press reporter Gillian Gotora in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.