Voodoo witch doctors are duping top footballers out of hundreds of thousands of euros, with some stars becoming “slaves” to unscrupulous so-called healers who sacrifice cockerels to ensure success on and off the pitch.
Players under the sway of such folk healers, known as “marabouts”, say it is hard to break free because of threats of magical revenge.
The former Manchester United star denied the claims, but other footballers have become victims of extortion after turning to healers for help.
“It was like a spiral,” said Gilles Yapi Yapo, a former Ivory Coast international who claimed he was cheated out of €200,000 (£174,000) by a witch doctor who suggested he “sacrifice his son” if he couldn’t pay him.
“You are like a slave and it can be really damaging,” the 41-year-old said of the two years he spent under the spell of a traditional healer.
The midfielder, who now manages a team in the Swiss second division, was “going through a difficult period” playing for the French Ligue 1 side Nantes when his uncle recommended he see a witch doctor in Paris.
The healer told him his family had been cursed, which was stopping him “succeeding and being happy”, and offered to make sacrifices “to counteract the curses”.
Sacrificing a cockerel, goat or ram started at €500 but swiftly rose to “colossal sums”, Yapi Yapo told the AFP news agency.
Then one day it became darker, “something like black magic”, said Yapi Yapo.
“The marabout made me believe that the spirits he worked for liked me and wanted to make me rich,” he said. “That was the bait.”
The sacrifices needed to attain these riches cost “€40,000, €50,000, then €60,000”. When the footballer started to become financially stretched, the witch doctor warned he would “have to sacrifice his son” if he ran out of money.
“I had the strength to say ‘stop’ and I never went back to him,” said Yapi Yapo.
In two years he had handed over €200,000, and got “nothing positive back”. “He knew how to put me into a spiral and I lost the ability to think clearly.”
The footballer said his Christian faith helped give him the strength to put an end to the hold the marabout had on him.
Some witch doctors “threaten vengeance”, he said, “so there is a fear of breaking away from them”.
‘I fell into the trap’
Another Ivory Coast-born footballer, Cisse Baratte, told AFP he had endured the same ordeal. When he began playing for a top club in Abidjan at 16, he was told that healers could make him perform better and protect him “from jealousy”.
“I fell into the trap,” he admitted. Baratte, now 55, started by taking “showers with potions” prescribed by a witch doctor, having sacrifices made and wearing a leather protection belt that had verses of the Koran sewn into it.
“As soon as I got injured or things weren’t going well, I would go to him. He became like a god to me… You become dependent and he took advantage of that,” Baratte said.
With so much money at stake, elite sports players “regularly turn to witch doctors and to the paranormal”, said Joel Thibault, an evangelical pastor who is a spiritual adviser to French striker Olivier Giroud and other top athletes.
They can also offer the promise of sexual prowess.
All this had remained out of the public eye until Pogba – whose parents come from Guinea – fell victim to an alleged extortion attempt by some of his entourage last year.
His brother later claimed Pogba paid a witch doctor to jinx Mbappe, but both the midfielder and the healer denied this when questioned by police. The marabout said the substantial payments Pogba made to him were for “good works in Africa”.
Pastor Thibault said he had witnessed “disastrous consequences” of such practices on other footballers and basketball players.
“I know there are clubs that allow players to go to Senegal after they get injured because doctors can’t treat them. They come back and play with amulets and protection belts.”
Those who go to healers in France have told him “that when things are going less well they are told to make more sacrifices, to pay more for them, and then it spirals”, he added. “I see the damage… players who are depressed and who have had suicidal thoughts.”
“Some [marabouts] are like psychotherapists… while others are swindlers,” said Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, an anthropologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
Some come from a Sufi tradition with a deep “religious culture and desire to help”, he said, but others know little more than “a few surahs of the Koran and extract the maximum for their victims”.
As long as there are players looking for “shortcuts to success”, witch doctors’ influence on the game is “not going to stop, unfortunately”, said Yapi Yapo.