* In 1984, the Ivory Coast team put some 150 shamans up at a hotel to “advise” them during the African Nations Cup.
* In 2008, the manager of the Midlands Portland Cement team in Zimbabwe instructed his players to soak in the crocodile-infested Zambezi River to ward off evil spirits.
* That same year, in the Congo, a goalkeeper for Nyuki was accused of trying to cast a spell on the opposing team. Riots ensued, leaving 13 dead.
Steven Stark says he expects “juju men” and other assorted occult practitioners to keep a low profile during the Cup — the African teams are quite aware of the PR problem they pose.
But tales of talismans and hexes will doubtless emerge in time. Less clear, at the moment, is whether the supernatural intervention will be enough to carry the African teams to victory. “There is no evidence,” Botswana’s official soccer magazine intones, “that matches can be won using magic alone.”
Emphasis added, but probably not required.
The worst team in the world
Soccer may provide a path to glory for the world’s great and wealthy powers. But it can also be a tool of glorious humiliation for the humble.
In June 2002, mere hours before Germany and Brazil squared off in the World Cup championship match in Japan, Bhutan and Montserrat had a showdown of their own in the shadows of the Himalayas. The 2002 match, dreamed up by a Dutch documentarian, pitted the world’s two then-worst teams.
The results were captured in a film called The Other Final, and included such amusing fish-out-of-water moments as the sporting Montserratians teaching their hospitable Bhutanian hosts how to sing the island’s quasi-national anthem, “Hot, Hot, Hot,” by Montserrat’s soca star Arrow.
Every month, FIFA ranks all of the planet’s 200-or-so teams (there are currently 207). In 2002, as the world’s best 32 squads prepared to battle their way to the Final match, the last-ranked team from Montserrat was acclimating to the 7400-feet-above-sea-level altitude of Thimphu, the capital city of the penultimately ranked Bhutan team. (The Caribbeans also had to make due with the fact that, during a stopover in Calcutta on their arduous five-day journey — there aren’t exactly any direct flights from Montserrat to Bhutan — seven of their players got food poisoning.)
In a match that left no questions about which team was the world’s worst, played before 20,000 fans in a FIFA-sanctioned “friendly,” the Bhutanese humbled their Caribbean guests 4-nil.
Were the Other Final to be held this year, a two-team showdown would be insufficient to identify FIFA’s bottom-ranked squad. There is currently a six-team logjam for 202nd place, with American Samoa, Anguilla, the Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, San Marino, and our old friend Montserrat tied for the honor. Perhaps an eight-team tournament, featuring these six, 201st ranked Andorra, and 200th ranked East Timor would do the trick?
Calcutta, one assumes, would not be allowed to bid on the catering concession.
David Scharfenberg and Lance Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. Marianna Faynshteyn assisted with research for this piece.