Growing up in Senegal, I cannot recall a moment when my experience of sports – of all sports – was not seasoned with a healthy dose of mysticism.
Actually, that statement is a half-truth. I can perfectly remember the moment, or rather the period, during which everything felt new to me. That long blur would be the year 1992, the first year I remember being completely aware of sports and the affect they could have on my young, impressionable six-year-old self. It’s not so much that I started appreciating sports with mysticism; I was hooked into sports through mysticism.
The moments I’m trying to remember had nothing, yet everything, to do with football. Let me explain: they had nothing to do with the actual matches, the stress, the pressure and the outcome. But it had everything to with what football brings, the irrationality of the fans, the pressures, the stress and its outcome.
In 1992, Senegal welcomed the continent for the 18th African Cup of Nations. We were clear favourites, due largely to the fact that, in addition to our hosting duties, we had assembled what was, at the time, the best team we had ever been able to pull together. With legends such as Jules François Bocandé and Souleymane Sané leading us, under the orders of journey-coach Claude Le Roy, we were supposed to dominate, dazzle, then win it all for the first time. We were convinced that all the ingredients were right there. Until they weren’t. Beaten by Cameroon in the quarter-finals, Senegal had to watch the rest of the competition from the sidelines, while the nation was forced into picking a surrogate team.
Most settled for Ghana. Their flag was close enough. Abédi Pelé was already doing otherworldly things at Olympique de Marseille, at the time the country’s most popular French club. The Black Stars had the underdog appeal going for them. They were “like” us, only they spoke English. And, most importantly, they were neither Cameroon nor the Ivory Coast. Cameroon will always feel like rivals to us, even if Senegal’s trophy room is still as empty as a school during summer.
And we couldn’t root for the Ivory Coast, could we? Nope, no dice. There was no chance that we would warm to what we perceived as arrogance. And their goalkeeper… Alain Gouaméné was his name. He was good, suspiciously good. His skills were too good to be true, weren’t they? How can he not concede a single goal?
As a young kid, I trusted what everyone around me was saying, all the stories people were churning out over afternoon tea to prove that Gouaméné’s owed his great tournament to a mystical shield he carried in his bag.
Hey, look. The balls just. Refused. To go in…
When the Ivory Coast won and Gouaméné finished the tournament unbeaten, the stories made all the sense in the world. And they never stopped making sense; the idea of having forces bigger than us help us in our petty victories has some appeal to me. The wildest of tales abound when a winning streak is in full flow. “He must have sacrificed seven chickens at dawn…”, “There is no way he hasn’t given some milk to the spirits” – there is no theory I haven’t heard somewhere on the grapevine.
Sometimes, the stories of Black Magic or Voodoo – or of any type of mystical “help” designed to give players the edge they need to overpower their opponents – make it to European news. And they are pegged as folklore or witchcraft and deemed incredible, if entertaining, by the public, while being relished by a certain kind of person.
Now and again, though, unfortunate rumours have legs and gain enough steam that the people involved have to explain themselves to the country. Recently, Ghanaian team captain and superstar Asamoah Gyan had to call a press conference in Accra to deny having sacrificed one of his acquaintances, a local rapper named Castro, who perished at sea while on holiday with the striker. Tragic circumstances always stimulate the wildest imaginations and the basest instincts.
Fortunately, the chuckle-worthiness of some tales remains untouched years after they have happened. It is certainly the case in the story of Michel Denisot, the – currently – beloved national icon of journalism and Editor-in-Chief of the French version of Vanity Fair magazine. For this beacon of French debonaire charm and flair was at the centre of something altogether less dignified in the nineties. From 1991 to 1998, Denisot was president of Paris Saint-Germain, then the property of television network Canal+. His run at the helm of PSG is nothing to sneeze at. Au contraire; he won multiple domestic honours and even a European Cup Winner’s cup.
Michel Denisot can be credited with overseeing the most successful period ever in the history of his club. But while promoting his recently released autobiography, the affable gentleman started talking about how he got involved with African witchcraft and a Senegalese marabout in the early nineties.
After winning the first leg of their match in Bucharest during the group stages of the European Cup, Paris saw their 3-2 victory against Romanian powerhouse Steaua overturned, and marked down instead as a 3-0 loss. In the aftermath, PSG were understandably seen as the laughing stock of the competition; then again, playing with a suspended Laurent Fournier, who was supposed to watch the match from home, will do that to you.
Denisot was devastated, and left the leadership to the then-Seleçao captain Raï and his friend Leonardo. The Brazilians were the mental compasses of the team, and Socrates’ younger sibling did not disappoint in preparing his team-mates for battle. But somewhere in Michel Denisot’s backroom staff was an ace that would not wait long to reveal itself.
Claude Le Roy, the man who had by that point coached countless African countries, and was seen by many as the original “white sorcerer”, was that ace. Le Roy was fresh from a three-year stint with Senegal – a stint that didn’t end well, but that had kept his connections fresh enough to make a phone call or two to any known marabout in west Africa. They were connections he would not hesitate to exploit if the situation warranted it. And ding, ding, ding, this particular predicament was exactly what one might call ‘a mystical emergency’.
So, when Le Roy informed his president that he knew of marabout sorcerers ready to work with – and for – them to help Paris Saint-Germain win the second leg, Michel Denisot didn’t hesitate. The extremely stoic executive holds a very pragmatic philosophy – an occult ‘by any means necessary’, if you will. Indeed, in his view, as long as it’s legal, let’s go for it. No effort – or expense – will be spared in the pursuit of victory.
The story told by Denisot himself was that they consulted a series of marabouts, before settling on a Senegalese sorcerer named Sidy. Sidy was initially reluctant. After discovering the money transfer service Western Union, however, Denisot was able to lure Sidy by sending him an undisclosed – but reportedly very small – amount of money. Upon receiving it, Sidy laboured over the match and told Denisot, three days before the game, that things would not go their way.
But then, on the day before that decisive match-up against Steaua, Sidy did an about-turn, predicting a 5-0 PSG victory. Pushing his luck, the Senegalese marabout told Denisot that he could clearly foresee the outcome of the game – before adding that number 18 would score the fourth goal in the 42nd minute.
The marabout’s predictions were almost perfect. Florian Maurice netted the fourth goal of a 5-0 rout in the 41st minute – one minute too early, sure, but Denisot would not be asking for his money back. Everyone was happy and Sidy received rave reviews from the entire PSG staff.
Mocked by many of his colleagues for talking to journalists about the marabout, Michel Denisot relished it when Jean-Pierre Hureau, the then-president of Le Havre AC, called him to seek advice – and Sidy – after his team lost four matches in a row and found themselves on the brink of relegation to the second division.
An even better story: Leonardo, who had left Paris Saint-Germain to become a player, and then a coach, at AC Milan called Denisot up a few years later to ask for Sidy’s number – he was in a bit of a pickle. As Denisot attests, “The stories with the marabout are endless, and [Leonardo] kept him in business for years.”
As a kid from Senegal, these stories never cease to amaze, since we always tend to talk about marabouts the way westerners refer to quacks. We don’t believe them to be any more useful than regular old Hail Marys, but the folklore and the closeness to our culture always felt comfortable somehow. To this day, I credit the marabouts of my country for Senegal’s epic run at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Don’t ask me how, but they made it happen. I would just love for them to do it again.
As for Alain Gouaméné and the mysterious story of his success, Paul Denis Gogoua, former intendant at the Ivorian Football Federation, has told stories of the Elephants bringing a squad of 10 marabouts – the eleventh being a woman – to Dakar in 1992 to help them fight spirits off the pitch. Their power was so strong that the cup was theirs before they had even set foot in Dakar.
I wonder whether there will be a repeat this weekend in Bata, when the Ivory Coast take on Ghana for the 2015 AFCON trophy.