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Africa, magic and football: the hat of Robert Mensah


…(continuing from last week)

Robert Mensah wearing his magic hat

Speaking on Ghana, there’s another fantastic story of the early Seventies. It’s about Robert Mensah, goalkeeper of Asante Kotoko, football team of the city of Kumasi. According to the chronicle of those times, he’s one of the best in his role, agile although his height is almost two meters. His secret? A magic hat, given to him by his grandfather, a pastor, before he died. That hat was way more than a lucky charm, every opponent tried to remove it from Robert’s head, as they were frustrated by his spectacular saves and by his attitude. They say that Mensah used to read the newspaper while playing, just to the diminish his adversaries.

So far nothing strange. But there comes the day when Mensah becomes legend. It’s the beginning of 1971, and the final of the African Champions League is on. Asante Kotoko, the Porcupines, is facing Englebert, the Almighty, from Zaire. It’s the payback of three years earlier, when the Ghanaian team lost by forfeit after two draws just because they didn’t receive the notice of where the playoff would have been played.

This time the first match ended 1-1 in Kumasi, the second match is in Kinshasa. Zaire is under the regime of Mobutu who, like many other dictators, uses sport as a propaganda vehicle. So he is ready for anything to win the Cup. Like sending the Porcupines in a run-down hotel, in front of a swamp and with no windows to protect from mosquitoes. Plus, the classical corruption of the referee.

The porcupine, symble of the team Asante Kotoko

Asante Kotoko doesn’t suffer from that, though, and overturns the disadvantage, defended by the courage and the blocks of Mensah. Until, few minutes from the final whistle, the referee makes a huge for Englebert, giving them an unfair penalty kick. The coach of the Porcupines wants to pull back the team for protest, but Robert stops him. He can save the net and give the Cup to Asante Kotoko.

Englebert players put a condition. If Mensah wants to remain on the field, he has to take off the magic hat. It’s juju, so it’s forbidden by the rules. That’s when Mensah challenges the 90 thousand supporters at the stadium and the soldiers, showing theatrically the hat and putting it on the ground. The troops are so scared by this item that they start skewing it with their bayonets, like literally killing the magic.

Mensah does other blessings and performs a quick dance on the line of his goal, to distract the kicker, the infallible Shinabu. The shoot is over the bar and Asante Kotoko wins the Champions League, making history. This happy ending has a short life, as Robert Mensah will be killed at the end of the year in a bar fight. An entire Country will mourn him and see him for the second and last time without his famous hat.

Mami Wata, a water deity

The dutch anthropologist Arnold Pannenborg studied the effect of superstition in African football, finding out that the most common juju the players turn to is Mami Wata, a water deity, who would preserve the goal from the opponents. But we aren’t that better. Bothering God, Allah or whoever to score against the last in table is that different?

So the holy water of Giovanni Trapattoni, playing with the same underwear or sitting in the very same place are just as illogical ritual as juju or Robert Mensah’s hat. But there must be a reason why, even with all this irrationality, we love especially the magic of this sport.


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