"We are no more willing to see witch doctors on the bench than cannibals at the concession stand," a confederation spokesman said. "Image is everything."
The ban takes aim at a practice that is common among many African teams -- as Anthony Baffoe, who played for years in Germany's top league as well as for Ghana's national team, will confirm. "Just as every German team has a masseur," he said, "every African team has a witch doctor."
What exactly do soccer witch doctors do?
"They bend the lines, bewitch the ball, befuddle the referee and paralyze the goalkeeper," says Bartholomaus Grill, Africa correspondent for the German newspaper Die Zeit. Witch doctors do all this through animal sacrifices, the casting of spells and the use of lucky charms and odious concoctions.
(Maybe that explains why referee Koman Coulibaly, who is from Mali, was the only person in the stadium who saw a foul and thus disallowed a goal that would have given the U.S. a stirring comeback victory over Slovenia on June 18.)
But the ban on witchcraft ignores the fact that many European, American and South American coaches and players practice superstitious behavior that would make the average witch doctor blanch.
Perhaps the most glaring example at the moment is the French coach Raymond Domenech, who relied on astrological signs to pick his players. He refused to play Scorpios and was reluctant to use spotlight-loving Leos. "When I have a Leo on defense," Domenech once said, "I've always got my gun ready as I know he's going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us."
It was probably inevitable that Domenech, an Aquarius, would clash with star striker Nicolas Anelka, a Pisces. As astrologer Rebecca Roberts points out: "The Pisces doesn't like to feel controlled in any way and won't accept some of the Aquarius' outrageous ways."
Their astrological mismatch boiled over during halftime of France's dismal loss to Mexico on June 17. Anelka uncorked a tirade of profanity in the locker room, suggesting that Domenech should "go have sexual intercourse with yourself in that special place where the moon don't shine, you filthy son of a prostitute." Trust me, it sounds much better in the original French. Anelka was promptly kicked off the team, and France was ousted from the tournament.
But the use of astrology is not the only -- or even the strangest -- of soccer superstitions. Sergio Goycochea, the Argentine goalkeeper in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, found that urinating on the pitch before shootouts helped keep his opponent's shots out of the goal. "It was my lucky charm," Goycochea explained, "and I went before every shootout. I was very subtle. Nobody complained."
Former Argentinian coach Carlos Bilardo forbade his players from eating chicken, believing it brought bad luck. He also insisted that the same music be played on the team bus on the way to the stadium, and that the driver never hit the brakes during up-tempo passages, regardless of traffic lights.
At the 1998 World Cup, France's Laurent Blanc made a ritual of kissing goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's bald pate before every match, and the team always listened to Gloria Gaynor's stirring anthem "I Will Survive" at maximum volume before taking the field. The French won the tournament that year.
And at the 2006 World Cup, the Italian midfielder Gennaro Gattuso wore the same unwashed jersey throughout the tournament and, perhaps to take his mind off the odor, read a few pages of Dostoyevsky before every match. Naturally, Italy became world champions.
Some players wear their underwear inside-out to protect against curses. Britain's John Terry insists on using the same urinal before every match. Ivory Coast's Kolo Toure, who plays his club soccer in England, is always the last man on his team to step onto the pitch.
Even the gods are superstitious. Brazil's Pele, perhaps the greatest player of all time, once gave a jersey away to a fan. When Pele's level of play slipped soon afterward, he frantically sent a friend out to retrieve the jersey. The friend brought the jersey back and Pele immediately returned to form. Only later did the friend admit that he had never been able to find the fan or the old jersey, but had simply given Pele his regular jersey and told him it was the old one.
Just because it's all in the mind doesn't mean it doesn't work.
And finally, there are the fans. On June 18 I watched Germany's 1-0 loss to Serbia in a New York City bar packed with distraught German tourists. As the clock wound down, a man from Stuttgart turned to me and moaned, "I should have stayed in bed today. I was on a plane last Sunday with no television, and we beat Australia 4-0."