Soccer superstitions

Tiresomely eccentric French manager Raymond Domenech has supposedly said that isn't superstitious, as it brings bad luck. But superstitions are rife among footballers.

Simple lucky habits such as putting on one specific sock before the other aren't rare, but some other rituals are a lot more elaborate.

The importance of being last

Several players, such as William Gallas of France, insist on being the last player out onto the pitch, and some have been known to sit in the loo until everyone else has left, to ensure this. Arsenal player Kolo Toure, once missed the start of the second half of a championship match, waiting for Gallas to go on field, so that he could himself be the last player to emerge.

This insistence on being last has long been engrained in dressing room rituals, the most famous recent example being Paul Ince who was always the last player on his team to run out onto the pitch, and the last to put on his shirt. Kevin Keegan, too, would put his shirt on last, while Jack Charlton would be last out of the dressing room and Stan Bowles would be the last onto the pitch.

Successful English captain of the 1960s and 70s, Bobby Moore, insisted on being the last person in the change-room to put on his shorts, and would stand around, shorts in hand, waiting for everyone else to finish dressing. A mischievous team-mate, noticing this, would wait till Moore had his shorts on, and then take off his own. Moore would promptly take off his own shorts, and wait for the other guy to get dressed again.

It's common for players to touch the ground and cross themselves on emerging. Therry Henry does this. Gattuso apparently likes to read Dostoevsky in the loo before a match, and Adrian Muti seemingly feels safe from injury if he wears his underwear inside out.

There was an odder combination during the 1988 World Cup, between France's Laurent Blanc and Fabien Barthez, when the player insisted on kissing the bald head of the goalkeeper before a match; and the team would listen to the Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive" in the dressing-room. And that was the year the French won the cup.

Different teams, different quirks

The English team have their quirks, too. England's John Terry has admitted to "around 50" superstitions, including always listening to the same Usher CD in his car, parking in the same space at Chelsea, sitting in the same seat on the team bus - and wearing the same pair of shin-pads for 10 years, until he accidentally lost them. 1970s Liverpool player David Fairclough used to wash his hands four times before every game, and also had a thing about putting on his shorts last.

David Beckham is rumoured to be obsessive, and especially fussy about how some items in his kit are arranged, especially the items in his fridge. And he requires an even number of Pepsi cans, so if there are three in the fridge, he will throw away one.   

Manchester City goalkeeper Shay Given insists on placing a small bottle of holy water at the back of his goal, while former Irish/Celtic keeper Packie Bonner would carry some clay from County Donegal in his glove bag.

Newcastle's Chris Waddle wore the same underpants right through the 1983 season when his team won promotion (mercifully allowing them to be washed each time), and in the 1986-87 season, he didn't shave until Spurs lost. Dutch player Johan Cruyff of Ajax, would slap the stomach of his goalkeeper, then spit his chewing gum into the other team's half before kick-off. And indeed, when he forgot his gum in the 1969 European Cup final, his team lost.

Manchester United player Gary Neville perhaps shows how superstition can border on OCD, admitting to so many superstitions that they could become problematic. He would wear the same shoes, belts, aftershave all season, for as long as he was on a winning streak. .

Lucky numbers

Some players insist on wearing a particular lucky shirt number (number 10 seems to have been especially fortunate for Brazilian and Argentinian players). Messi kept the number 10 after Maradona retired, and Zico and Kaka apparently stuck to the number worn by Pele. Yet, like it or not, some players will be allocated shirt number 13, and will have to succeed despite it. Uruguayan Sebastian Abreu always asks for number 13. In Asia, 13 is fine, but number 4 is considered unfortunate, and some buildings there, instead of marking the 13th floor as "12A" or skipping right to 14, avoid numbering a 4th floor.

Other curious superstitions have been reported. German striker Mario Gomez always prefers to use the urinal furthest to the left in the loo. Gary Lineker of England wouldn't try a shot at goal during warm-up, considering this to be wasting a goal. If he didn't score in the first half, he'd change his shirt. If he continued not to score, he'd get a haircut.

I have read that Argentinian goalie Sergio Goycochea would urinate on the pitch before facing a penalty. It's hard to work out how he could manage this without protests from crowd, ref and opposing players, but he said: "It was my lucky charm and I went before every shoot-out," he said. "I was very subtle, nobody complained."

The salt of the earth

One of the odder superstitions was indulged in by former President of the club Pisa, Romeo Anconetani. Before every match he would throw salt onto the pitch. The more important the game, the more salt. Prior to one especially important match, he apparently cast 26 kg of salt onto the pitch.

There is a story (I do hope it's apocryphal) about the coach of the Zimbabwean side Midlands Portland Cement recently. He sent his team of 17 into the crocodile-infested Zambezi for a ritual cleansing to restore their harmony - minutes later, only 16 players emerged from the river. And they lost the next match.

The function of sports superstitions

We know from many examples, that many sportsmen and women are superstitious. Probably it's from the usual reason for such superstitious behaviours - that it gives you the reassuring sense of being able to control a situation at least partly that is very important for you and essentially uncontrollable. It gives a sense of control that is comforting even if illusory, and of confidence.

There's an instructive story about the legendary Brazilian player, Pelé . Experiencing a loss of form, Pele, who had impulsively given one of his playing shirts to a fan, sent a friend to find the fan and get it back at all costs. When a week later the pal brought his shirt back to him, Pele put it on and promptly returned to his excellent form. His friend chose not to tell him that he had been wholly unable to find the fan and the original shirt, and had just given back to him the same shirt he had worn previously. So never forget that with such superstitions, like gifts, it's the thought that counts!

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2010)

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