‘There are fairies somewhere with tremendous energy. I can sense angels.’ – Dai Davies, Former Welsh International and medium.
At Turkish club Fenerbahce, new players are initiated by smearing sheep’s blood on their socks. In 1984, Biriba, the talisman dog of Brazilian club Botafogo was made to urinate on a player’s foot for good luck, while a reserve player had to test her food for her continued good health. Seventeen players of Midlands Portland Cement, a Zimbabwean football team were instructed by their coach to take a dip in the crocodile-infested Zambezi river for their annual cleansing ceremony in 2008 – only 16 returned.
Now, whatever you have read and are about to read may seem stranger than fiction, but it is only appropriate, as that theme would be true to the very nature of football and its pagan origins.
Collateral damage and creation
“First Chaos came to be, but next... Gods.” – Hesiod.
Theogony - an epic by Hesiod, the first written poet of Western tradition, described the genealogy of Greek gods, and consequently, the formation of the universe as early as 700 BC. Protogónos (Πρωτογόνος), meaning the first-born Gods, he imagined, were conceived out of primordial chaos and were in perpetual turmoil until the reign of Zeus who codified the religion.
Around quite some time later, in 2008, football historian Jonathan Wilson in his seminal work Inverting the Pyramid, wrote, “In the beginning, there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians who codified it.” Quite fittingly, perhaps was a tip of the hat to the Greek scholar, because when one traces his forefinger up football’s family tree, a consistent theme is underpinned.
Before the far-reaching tendrils of FIFA perfected the art of embezzlement and turning the game into a mutant cash-cow, the sport was played with an inflated pig’s bladder and for the jolly ol’ kick of it. David Squires of The Guardian, in his book An Illustrated History of Football on the subject of the mob game of folk football, commented: “In Britain, prior to the 18th century, an anarchic form of the game was played. The object of which was to get the ball from one end of the village to the other in the shortest time possible… Pottery stalls were overturned, parsnips trampled; the rough game was unpopular with local business owners and heightened the enduring British fear of crimes against property. Just imagine what a rampant pack of muddy serfs crashing through your hamlet would have done for hut prices!” The riotous game of folk football, participants of which numbered from 20 to 200 (or sometimes even more), therefore, in terms of genetic integrity is as much the progenitor of modern football, as much the Tyrannosaurus Rex was of the processed and packaged chicken patty in your Happy Meal.
Prior to the studied ways of Total Football and all its intricacies that embellished the lush, grand, grassy carpets of Europe, the sweeping fad of British folk football totalled runny cobblestoned streets. It is quite possible that the popular British phrase of “like a bull in a china shop” found its origins in baffled bulls running into china shops for cover, wanting no part in the spectacle ensuing outside. A BBC Spectrum Programme aired in 1982 observed that, “it’s not so much a game...more a civil war.”
Further back, in 1608, the King’s Gazette reported in their high-brow Olde English, ‘’With the football...[there] hath been greate disorder in our towne of Manchester we are told, and glasse windowes broken yearlye and spoyled by a companie of lewd and disordered persons’’.
In 1618, King James I, who allegedly liked to get his royal knickerbockers dirty, preached the values of “muscular Christianity” in Book of Sports, and declared the games to be only played on Sundays, in an effort to stymie the random, untimely outbreaks of plucky enthusiasm – giving aggrieved merchants and peddlers enough time to board up their windows and shut up shop. Weekends thusly became matchdays.
King James I was onto something, and perhaps unknowingly set up a fool-proof plan of diverting the energies of hot-blooded young Brits for centuries to come - the catharsis of their eternal struggles of self-determination amounting to Twitter rants about: A) Transfer Committee; B) Referees that should get an appointment at Specsavers; C) Match tactics or lack thereof; or D)All of the above. God forbid if someone stops to check the fixture list to wonder why they still sing “God Save The Queen” in the year 2017.
The original kickabout
Two ravens sit on Odin’s shoulders, and bring to his ears all that they hear and see. Their names are Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory). – Old Norse rhyme.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, Tusker the Tyrant ruled over the sleepy isles of Orkney with an iron hand. And as the script would have it, the downtrodden townspeople gathered in their ninth century equivalent of a Scottish pub, and unanimously decided, right then, down with unreasonable taxes and this sort of thing.
Sensing the danger of an overly-clichéd demise, Tusker, padded-up with his warmest of woolens and (probably) his lucky pair of sheepskin socks, sneaked out at the dead of night to the midlands, hoping no peasant was well-protected enough against the chill of peak Scottish winter, or foolhardy enough to follow. The Viking earl obviously was not aware of the endearing quality of Scotsmen and their affinity for rum.
“A local champion decided that the thing to do was to end it once and for all, he slew him in single combat and cut his head off” says historian John Robertson in the documentary History of Football, citing the peerless, ancient Norse text of the Orkneyinga saga - part-historical, part-mythical records of Viking kings’ capture and rule of Northern Isles of Scotland, under the raven banner of the prime pagan Norse God, Odin the Allfather. The story, like with most Norse tales takes an expected eerie turn as Robertson adds, “the local champion tied tusker’s head to the pummel of his saddle, and rode north to Orkney; and as he did, his teeth cut into his leg, and eventually got deathly septic... With his dying strength, he managed to get back to Kirwall, climbing the Merket Cross in front the Magnus Cathedral, he threw the grizzly head to the waiting people below to show that their oppressor was indeed dead… He then died. And so infuriated were the people at the champion’s death, that they kicked around the head of Tusker in their anger and grief.”
The full-blooded game of folk football was conceived in the misty Scottish Isles, at a place and time where hearsay predates history, and folklores fog facts.
The Kirkwall Ba
The morning comes to consciousness
of faint stale smells of beer
from the sawdust trampled street
with all the muddy feet that press... – TS Eliot, Prelude.
While the rest of the world is recovering from their Christmas feasts and nursing New Year’s hangovers, a dog-eared page from the annals of history finds itself come to life into the little town of modern-day Kirkwall, year upon year, twice each year.
Doors are nailed down and windows are barricaded in preparation of the opposing scrums of Up-the-Gates (Uptowners) and Doon-the-Gates (Downtowners). When the cathedral clock strikes 1pm, the circular, leather-brown Ba (made of cork and clothed by horse leather) is thrown from the Merket Cross and into a sea of gathered heads and hoodies too-many-to-count. What transpires next is a sight not for the faint of heart.
Thirty three years ago, BBC did its best to summarise the phenomenon: “It breaks out twice a year at a time when peace and goodwill might be expected to prevail, the warring armies engaging in close combat with a ferocity that precludes respect for person or property. Even the law has been known to stand impotent as combatants surged and counter-surged through the environs of the police station, and memory has hardly dimmed the occasion when the local manse was invaded and despoiled. Casualties are high — but who cares? Crushed ribs and broken limbs are never enough reasons for the enthusiastic participants to desist from this traditional orgy of Orcadian violence which not even a sheriff’s edict could ban the Kirkwall Ba’ Game.”
Quite often, amidst the chaos of flailing limbs and the reek of perspiring underarms, the disorientated majority lose track of where the ball actually is- something the England football team try best not to unwittingly replicate every four years at the World Cup.
The object of the Kirwall Ba is to get the ball to the goals situated at the either end of the pitch. The pitch is the length of the town, symbolising the known boundaries of the earth. The goals are pagan landmarks as old as memory – a church and a harbour. For the Doon-The-Gates (“Gates” – not the thing with hinges, spikes, and a Beware of Dog sign, but in this context, etymologically closer to the old Norse word Gata, meaning “road”), if the ball is successfully dispatched into the harbour, it will mean a good year for fishing for the fishermen from downtown. Alternatively, if the Uppies get the ball, which signified the sun, a long-standing pagan representation for fertility, into their goal; is it believed the uptown farmers would reap much better than they sow.
The characteristically Neanderthalian sport of folk football underwent similar evolutionary mutation that led to modern-day football, much like the role Australopithecus afarensis (the missing link) played in human evolution. Yet, the modern game not only facilitates pagan practices, but also finds traits of the prehistoric man.
Anthropologist Desmond Morris extrapolated his findings in Soccer Tribes, saying, ‘’viewed in this way, a game of football becomes a reciprocal hunt. Each team of players, or ‘hunting pack’, tries to score a goal by aiming a ball, or ‘weapon’ at a defended goal-mouth, or ‘prey’. The essence of the ancient hunting pattern was that it involved a great deal of physical exercise combined with risk and excitement. It involved a long sequence with a build-up, with strategy and planning, with skill and daring and ultimately with a grand climax and a moment of triumph.’’
The ‘Hex on Becks’
At close inspection, modern football is an infested petri dish of pagan practices: From heraldic symbols or mysticanimals on club crests, Latin mottos invoking a faux sense of strength, nobility, grace and wisdom; to the practice of ritualistic reciting of chants like incantations, fans appealing to sympathetic powers at play with clasped hands, or footballers using their skin like tapestry for a vast array of tattoos with Devanagari, Mandarin or Norse scripts drawing from the ancient texts for protection from the threats that be, or a mistimed tackle.
Nothing highlights it more than the infamous “hex on Becks” episode in the 2006 edition of the World Cup: No necromancy is usually needed for England to perform like Dementors sucked life force and all the talent out of them, in the grandest stage of all. But on this occasion, Ecuador thought they’d take all the precautions anyway and hired shaman, Tzamarenda Naychapi who happened to drop by Stuttgart’s Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadium prior to the encounter to bless the team. Tabloids, doing what tabloids do, were rife with reports of a curse being placed on the England team, and specifically, David Beckham.
Alarmed by the news, Brian Botham from East London, otherwise known as Brother Brian, high priest of the Obsidian Shadow Coven, a Wiccan, was rushed to a studio with a quartz crystal wand and an England squad photograph in hand, to perform a cleansing ceremony on live television – not wanting to take any chances, the audience in the studio chanted along.
For what’s it is worth, strangely enough, David Beckham, as per the famous match day images, vomited during play, and then followed that up by duly dispatching a free-kick into the top corner.
Another well-documented incident involved Adrian Mutu being warned by Romain witches about a curse casted by his former girlfriend aimed to endanger his playing career; to which he replied, “No problem. Curses can’t touch me because I wear my underwear inside out.”
In August that year he fell out with manager Jose Mourinho, in September, Mutu failed a routine drug test at Chelsea, and by October he was released. To add insult to injury, he received a seven-month ban and a £20,000 fine from the English Football Association, and was embroiled in a long-lasting breach of contract trial where Chelsea demanded that he pay up for making them sack him on grounds of his substance abuse. Additionally, the two Serie A medals he won with Juventus later in 2005 and 2006 had to be returned due to the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Aged 38, the player who Chelsea paid Parma €22.5 million for currently plays for ASA Târgu Mureș. Who? Exactly.
Curse 1 – Calvin Klein 0.