Football is a magical game that often has a mystical quality about it. Take, for example, the players, who are sometimes elevated to the status of idols or gods. Then there are the stadiums, which are often referred to as temples or shrines, while famous victories occasionally go down in the annals of the game as miracles, with equally famous defeats brought about by cruel twists of fate.
And then there are the game’s many curses, some of which have resurfaced in recent months, while others have thankfully been laid to rest.
Described by their former president Vicente Calderon as the “Cursed Football Club” on account of their recurring misfortune, Atletico Madrid recently broke with tradition by winning their first Spanish league title in 18 years. Likewise, Arsenal, who have been similarly ill-fated of late, brought home their first trophy in nine years in winning the FA Cup in May.
There are a host of other curses that are alive and well, however, as Spain can vouch for. FIFA World Cup™ winners at South Africa 2010, La Roja were knocked out in the group phase at Brazil 2014, becoming the latest world champions to fail to defend their title. The last side to do so were Brazil, at Chile 1962, a full 52 years ago.
A few weeks before Spain’s truncated title defence, Benfica suffered their eighth consecutive defeat in European finals, going down on penalties to Sevilla in the UEFA Europa League final. For many of Lisbon club’s fans the man responsible for that extended run of bad luck is none other than As Águias’ former Hungarian coach Bela Guttman.
The fabled Guttman coached the Portuguese giants in the early 1960s and took them to the summit of European football. Yet after falling out with his employers over money, he decided to up and leave, not before issuing these fateful words: “I’m leaving a curse on you. You will not win a European title in the next 100 years.”
Though the club recently erected a large statue of the late Guttman with a European Cup under each arm in a bid to appease him and break the curse, it has had no effect as yet, much to the chagrin of the long-suffering Benfica fans.
Beanpoles, mediums and gypsies
Supporters of the Lisbon side could do worse than seek advice from the fans of Colombian outfit America de Cali, who once had to contend with a curse of their own. It came into being in 1948, when the club decided to become a professional concern, incurring the wrath of one of its members, Benjamin Urrea, who promptly put a curse on his beloved side.
“To hell with professionalism,” he thundered. “You can do what you want with America, but I swear before God that they will never be champions.” Though no one took his words seriously to begin with, the club did indeed fall on hard times, failing to win a trophy for the next three decades.
In 1978, a group of season-ticket holders, including Urrea himself, came together in a bid to change’s America’s fortunes and finally lift La Maldición del Garabato (“The Curse of the Beanpole”, as the tall Urrea was known). Their act of exorcism soon had the desired effect, with America winning their maiden national league title the very next season.
English side Birmingham City suffered a curse of their own when, in 1906 and at the behest of their chairman Harry Morris, they left their dilapidated home on Muntz Street to set up at St Andrew’s, evicting a group of gypsies in the process. It has not proved to be happy move, with many attributing The Blues’ subsequent lack of success to the 100-year curse the departing tenants put on them. Aside from winning the League Cup in 1963, Birmingham have been habitual also-rans, acquiring a reputation as one of England’s yo-yo clubs, shuttling up and down between divisions.
Many attempts have been made over the years to change the club’s fortunes, the most famous of them by former managers Ron Saunders and Barry Fry. Saunders, who coached the side from 1982 to 1986, hung crucifixes from the floodlight pylons and even went to length of painting the soles of his players’ boots red, not that either measure met with any success.
Ten years later, Fry took matters into his own hands. “We went three months without winning … We were desperate, so I urinated in all four corners of the pitch.” Asked if his plan worked, the inimitable Fry replied: “Well, we started to win and I thought it had, then they sacked me, so probably not.” The curse reared its ugly head again in 2006, its final year, with Birmingham suffering relegation once again.
Staying in the English Midlands, Derby County had a very similar problem to contend with after they moved to the Baseball Ground at the end of the 19th century. Forced to vacate the site and make way for The Rams, a group of Romany gypsies uttered a curse designed to prevent the club from winning a trophy. It worked too, with Derby losing three FA Cup finals in the space of six years. On reaching the final again in 1946, the club sent captain Jack Nicholson to settle the matter with the gypsies, which he duly did, allowing The Rams to beat Charlton Athletic 4-1 and finally lift a trophy.
Years later Charlton were involved in the lifting of another curse, this time involving Southampton, who in August 2001 moved from The Dell to the brand new St Mary’s Stadium. Their residence began with a lengthy winless run that prompted the exasperated Saints and their Scottish coach Gordon Strachan to recruit the services of a Pagan witch by the name of Cerridwen Dragon Oak Connelly.
The Celtic ceremony performed by the now-famous medium did the trick, with Southampton beating Charlton 1-0. A relieved Strachan said: “If she’s that good, she can take training for the next two weeks and I can get on with my golf while she gets rid of the ghosts. Maybe she can play up front.”
Voodoo and black cats
Australia were so determined to qualify for Mexico 1970 that they took an entirely different approach, calling on a voodoo priest to cast spells on their opponents in the preliminaries. After spiriting the Socceroos to victory over Rhodesia (formerly Zimbabwe) in their second-round match, the priest demanded payment. When none was forthcoming, he turned the curse round on the Aussies, who failed to reach the world finals on that occasion but did make it to Germany 1974, where they crashed out in the first round without scoring a goal. That would be their last world finals appearance for 32 years.
Intrigued by the curse, an Australian documentary maker travelled to Africa years later and paid a witch doctor to have it lifted. As if by magic, the Aussies qualified for Germany 2006 and went on to reach the last 16.
Continuing the theme, fans of Argentinian side Independiente buried seven cats at the home ground of their arch rivals Racing Club in a bid to bring them lasting bad luck, taking advantage of Racing’s successful trip to Montevideo for the 1967 Intercontinental Cup final against Glasgow Celtic to commit the dirty deed. As fate would have it, that trophy would be Racing last’s for the next 34 years.
Our last curse has former Monaco man Ludovic Giuly, ex-AC Milan enforcer Gennaro Gattuso and former Bayern Munich midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk at its centre. The trio respectively played in the 2004, 2005 and 2012 UEFA Champions League finals and have two things in common. The first is that they all touched the famous trophy as they walked out on to the pitch ahead of those finals. The second is that they all ended up on the losing side. Coincidence or a curse? You decide.