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Witchcraft central to Paul Pogba blackmail saga, but it’s nothing new in French football

If you ever visit Roissy-en-Brie, a small community in the east suburbs of Paris, everyone knows Ibrahim — or “Grande” as he is known. He’s even more famous since his name has been all over the news in France.

Ibrahim is a witch doctor, or a marabout as they are called in France. He claims to be able to cast a curse, lift a curse, bring you luck and success, or make life miserable. As such, he’s known in the African community around Paris as being one of the best at what he does. Plenty of people don’t believe in it, but in the African culture that Paul Pogba, and many other football players, grew up in, witch doctors like Grande are popular, influential and busy.

French football has been historically linked with witchcraft, too, albeit not always in circumstances as negative as those surrounding the Pogba family at the moment.

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In a series of new videos posted on his social media accounts, Mathias Pogba, who is currently being held in jail after being charged for attempted extortion of his brother, Paul, is accusing his sibling of paying “over €4 million” for Ibrahim’s services since 2015. He also says that Serge Aurier, the Nottingham Forest defender, and Alou Diarra, the former France international, were the ones who introduced Grande to Pogba. Both players denied this was the case when asked by ESPN.

Nevertheless, Mathias alleges that Paul asked Grande to protect him from injuries, to help France win the 2018 World Cup, to neutralise PSG’s Kylian Mbappe in the Champions League round of 16 second leg in 2019 at the Parc des Princes — Man United advanced on away goals after a 3-1 win — and make United qualify, as well as many other, smaller requests.

Yet Pogba told the police that he only consulted Grande to bring him good favours in regard of some charity work in Africa. Pogba also admitted that his brother and other childhood friends were blackmailing him over his relationship with Grande. The investigation found this WhatsApp message sent by Mathias to Paul, according to Le Parisien newspaper: “Listen, it is pretty simple. Now, you will transfer them the money [Pogba was asked to pay €13m] they have asked from you. Otherwise, I call Mbappe’s dad and all the media in the world and tell all the stories… With Grande, I have everything!”

This practice of witchcraft might seem unusual for readers in England or the U.S. in particular, but in Africa and in France, it is common. Many national teams, football clubs, presidents and even players have used, or tried to use, it. Some still do.

The two most famous accounts are Paris Saint-Germain, back in 1997, and Senegal in the 2002 World Cup. The Lions of Terenga hired Ngoy Lingueul Mbaye as their official witchdoctor for the tournament. Bruno Metsu, the French coach of the team who was well-accustomed to African culture given his time coaching on the continent, wasn’t convinced the spiritual help was much of an asset. “Maybe two or three [players] are susceptible to that kind of thing, but the rest just treat it as a joke… [if it was effective] we’d have won the African Nations Cup and the World Cup ages ago.”

And yet Senegal reached the quarterfinals — just the second African nation to get that far after Cameroon did it in 1994, with Ghana later matching the feat in 2010 — beating defending champions France in the tournament opener and writing one of the most beautiful pages in World Cup history along the way.

France midfielder Emmanuel Petit certainly believed it more than Metsu, telling a story to RMC Sport about that World Cup, when reflecting on their 1-0 defeat some years later: “One year before the 2002 World Cup, I was at a beach in France and met a Senegalese hawker [street vendor.] He walked up to me and said ‘Look, the World Cup that will be played in 12 months, France will meet Senegal and Senegal will win by 1-0, because our witchdoctors are very strong in Senegal. You will see.’

“I wasn’t sure of anything until it truly happened a year later.”

PSG’s use in 1997 is just as memorable. They had just lost in the first leg of the Champions League’s second qualifying round against Steaua Bucarest by forfeit (3-0) after fielding an ineligible player (Laurent Fournier.) Michel Denisot, who was PSG president at the time, was so desperate for his side to reach the group stages that he reached out to Sidi, another famous witch doctor, for help.

After a few consultations, paying €200 each time, Sidi kept telling Denisot he couldn’t predict that would happen in the second leg. Then, two days before the game, Sidi told Denisot: “You will win 5-0, it is certain. I can see the whole game now. The fourth goal will be scored by the No. 18 in the 41st minute.” PSG went on to win 5-0 in front of an incandescent atmosphere at the Parc des Princes. Florian Maurice, who wore No. 18, scored the fourth goal in the 40th minute.

Denisot reached out to Sidi many more times after that game, including when he was in charge of another club, LB Chateauroux, a third-division team that had a famous run to the 2003-04 Coupe de France final. They defeated Ligue 1 titans AS Monaco on their way to losing 1-0 against PSG, of all teams, in the final.

Denisot wrote in “Breves de vies,” his 2014 memoir: “I continued to use the talents of my marabout, including once for the Chateauroux club, the year they went to the final of the Coupe de France. Until he was a bit wrong about the last forecast, and I again relied exclusively on logical and directly controllable parameters.”

At Metz, Sochaux, Montpellier and many other French clubs, as well as across Africa, mystics have been employed to help. At Laval, former France and Chelsea defender Frank Leboeuf saw it with his own eyes.

“My teammate was Pierre Aubame [Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s father] and he could not walk,” the 1998 World Cup winner told ESPN. “He was convinced that there was a curse on him. He went to see many doctors and was not getting better. I saw him consult a marabout who touched his leg and did all sorts of black magic and Aubame was healed, just like that. It was incredible.”

There is so much at stake in football, both for players individually but also for clubs and their owners, that there will always be opportunities for marabouts to be involved in the game. The Pogba saga has just highlighted a practice that many around the world didn’t even know existed.

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