Forget pop psychology - bring back superstition

Image of Simon Kuper

“If all else fails, try voodoo,” is a rule taught at the more progressive business schools. Now it has reached Mexican soccer fans. Next Wednesday, Mexico play a World Cup qualifying match in the US, where they have not won in 10 years. So a Mexican newspaper printed coupons, which fans could cut out and redeem at Radio Shack stores for voodoo dolls of American players. The newspaper’s advertisements showed pins being stuck into a very sorry doll. But then Radio Shack got embarrassed and dropped the promotion.

This is a shame. Superstition is fading from sport. It has been superseded in American locker-rooms by prayer, with mixed results, and everywhere else by pop psychology, while in English football all defeats are now attributed to crazy refereeing decisions. Gennaro Gattuso, the Italian footballer who reportedly prepares for matches by reading Dostoevsky on the toilet, is a rare modern sportsman to stick to primitive ritual. We need to draw inspiration from the 1970s, the new-agey decade that was the heyday of superstition in sport. Here, as a free service to Mexico and other losing teams, are the superstitions that made the great players great.

Johan Cruyff. Holland’s greatest footballer was dependent on an obsessional series of pre-match rituals. During his time at Ajax these included slapping the goalkeeper Gert Bals in the stomach, and spitting his chewing gum into the opposition’s half before kick-off. When Cruyff forgot the gum for the European Cup final of 1969, Ajax lost 4-1 to Milan.

Weirdly, when I asked Cruyff for advice on superstition decades later, he said the crucial thing was that players mustn’t believe in it. “You have to make sure it has no influence,” he lectured. “If you think he’s acting a bit strange, and he says, ‘Yes, because I always get out of my bed left, and now right’, you have to say: ‘Boy, that has no influence’. If it does influence him, you can’t play him in the next match.”

Cruyff’s denial shows the embarrassment that now attaches to superstitions. The surviving rituals have mostly gone underground.

France in 1998. The goalkeeper is football’s equivalent of the saviour. That is probably why his body is sometimes treated as a primitive icon, which supplicants touch for good luck. The French rituals at the 1998 World Cup included always occupying the same seats on the team bus, listening to Gloria Gaynor’s 1970s hit “I Will Survive” in the changing-room (perhaps unaware that it is a gay anthem), and the climactic kiss that defender Laurent Blanc placed on keeper Fabien Barthez’s bald head before kick-off. France won the World Cup.

Holland in 1974. The great thing about a goalkeeper’s head is that it’s hard to mislay. If only the same were true of the cassette tape that Cruyff’s great Dutch team relied on during the World Cup of 1974. In the team bus before each match, the players sang along to the tape of The Cats, a now forgotten pop group from a Dutch fishing village. Holland tore through the tournament. But on the day of the World Cup final, nobody could find the cassette. Instead the Dutch listened to David Bowie’s Sorrow, and lost.

Bobby Moore. England’s captain of the 1960s and 1970s needed to be the last person in the changing-room to put on his shorts before kick-off. In 1981 the zoologist Desmond Morris wrote in The Soccer Tribe, one of the first books to take football seriously: “Moore’s team-mate Martin Peters was fascinated by the way he stood around holding the shorts, waiting for everyone else to finish dressing.” Peters would “take the mickey”, as he blithely called it, waiting until Moore had put on his shorts, and then taking off his own. Moore would respond by taking off his shorts, and waiting until Peters had put his back on. This game of chicken had no logical end, and may explain why England’s fortunes collapsed in the 1970s.

Bjorn Borg. The greatest tennis player of the 1970s won five Wimbledons by adhering to a Cruyff-like set of rituals. “The night before his opening game,” wrote Tim Adams in his nearly perfect On Being John McEnroe, Borg and his coach “took his 50 highly strung Donnay rackets and, for a couple of hours, tested their tension by gently hitting them together and listening to the sound they made. Each racket was then laid on the floor according to its relative musical pitch.” There it would lie in Borg’s hotel room until its appointed day came. The Swede had many ridiculous rituals – and they worked.

Pelé. The great Brazilian once gave away one of his football shirts to a fan, “only to find that his game suffered afterwards”, writes Desmond Morris. So Pelé dispatched a friend to track down the fan and retrieve the shirt. A week later the friend handed Pelé his shirt back. The player’s form immediately returned. Morris concludes: “His friend was careful not to tell him that the search had been futile and that he had simply handed back to the great man the shirt in which he had lost so miserably the previous week.” Still, it seems to have worked for Pelé.

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