The Netherlands meets Cameroon on Thursday for its final group match of the World Cup in Cape Town. The Dutch have already secured their place among the final 16 teams. But before moving on to the next round, the Dutch squad will have an encounter of a magical kind on Thursday – one with African football heroes, voodoo and the incessant wailing of vuvuzelas.
Dutch anthropologist Wouter van Beek is an out-an-out supporter of the Cameroonian team. His work first brought him into contact with the country in 1972. Africa, Cameroon and African football were a matter of love at first sight for this staunch Cameroon supporter.
In a culture where tribal roots define the man, national identity is very relative. In Cameroon alone, some 200 different languages are spoken. And football stars have replaced the traditional warrior – the only heroes that young Africans have at hand, says Mr van Beek.
“This means that African football is actually the ‘football of heroes’, where the individual player is paramount. It’s never about the team, never about tactics, never about strategy and positions. What matters are the footballers themselves. I think if Cameroon was a real team, they could win the World Cup.”
And “Oranje” or Orange – as the Dutch national team is known at home – shouldn’t start cheering too soon, for that would be to underestimate the power of African magic. Superstition plays a role amongst sportsmen in every corner of the world – whether it’s a matter of how a player ties his bootlaces, wearing a shirt with a religious image underneath the official kit, making the sign of the cross before a game, kissing the goalpost or packing your sports bag in a certain way - such rituals are universal and serve the one purpose of influencing the result.
But in African football – the football of individual heroes – magic has an extra dimension, moving beyond superstition to the supernatural. It only applies to the individual footballer and is centred around the opponent, as Mr van Beek explains.
“Its main aim is not to play better, but to ensure your opponent plays worse. In this case, the aim of such rituals is clearly to hinder your opponent. The players expect these to have an adverse effect on other African teams, but not on European countries. They think that Western teams also have their own spiritual advisers, and that their powers are probably stronger.”
But what can a level-headed Dutch coach, a technical assistant or physiotherapist do to match an African shaman or mystical marabout? What weapon can they use against magic spells cast on goalposts or the rituals carried out on water that the players will drink?
And even if African magic is no match for Dutch level-headedness, then the African fans still have one powerful weapon: the resounding, unrelenting African sound of the vuvuzelas… that never seems to let up.
“Africans turn every football match into a party. No matter which game. In Dutch football, if a team plays badly, the spectators go all quiet. But in South Africa, that just won’t happen. And I wonder if the referee’s whistle will be drowned out by the high-level intensity of noise.”
So, while Cameroon has already been sent packing and Holland is already certain of its ticket to the next round, the Orange team should still prepare itself well for the match ahead, says Wouter van Beek.