“There’s a lot of jealousy in football,” said Sheikh Issa, holding up a piece of bark and a bottle of a yellowish potion.
Which is why many professional players beat a path to the African faith healer in the Paris suburbs looking for ways to ward off the “evil eye” and other afflictions.
Since World Cup winner Paul Pogba was sensationally accused of having spells cast on his French teammate Kylian Mbappe, the surprisingly influential role folk healers or “marabouts” play in the game has begun to come to light.
“This is what I use to treat a player who keeps getting injured in big games,” said Sheikh Issa, whose name we have changed at his request.
He was really low and “I had to clean his star”, said the Ivory Coast-born “traditional practitioner”, who claims to be able to “see both the past and the future”.
With so much money at stake, and careers that can end on a single tackle, elite sports people “regularly turn to witch doctors and to the paranormal”, said Joel Thibault, an evangelical pastor who is a spiritual advisor to French striker Olivier Giroud and other top athletes.
All this had been discreetly going 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 hex Mbappe, but both the former Manchester United star and the healer told police they did nothing of the kind.
The marabout said the substantial payments Pogba made to him were for “good works in Africa”.
With three out of 10 people in France prone to believe in some sort of sorcery, according to a 2020 survey, AFP has been investigating this closed world for the past year.
We discovered how faith healers are “half feared and half despised” — as one anthropologist put it — and why they hold such sway in some communities.
– ‘A gift’ –
Sheikh Issa wears jeans in the street, but when he welcomes his clients into his surgery he sports a long African boubou robe. “I don’t believe in gris-gris or amulets, I believe in the Koran and in plants,” said the 45-year-old, who also runs a cleaning business.
The tools of his trade are arranged around him in a couple of dozen bottles and plastic bags — tree bark that protects you from the “evil eye”, ground seeds that “keep you lucky”, and potions to “add sheen” and charisma to “politicians, lawyers and business people” who Sheikh Issa said come to him looking to “be loved and admired”.
And, of course, remedies to enhance “sexual power”, he said pointing to another bottle. France is a “stressful country and some people are weak in bed”, added the sheikh, a little sheepishly. Afterwards they call and say, “Thank you, Sheikh.”
Sheikh Issa got “the gift” from his mother “who read shells” and his father, who is an imam. He trained with faith healers in West Africa — where people often consult marabouts — after studying at a koranic school.
He said his reputation took off when he “helped” a politician become a government minister. His three phones buzz constantly with messages.
Most of the sheikh’s clients — who he insists only pay the cost of importing his plants and his travel expenses — are mostly African and South Asian, although some come from both the French Caribbean and France itself.
One summer’s day when AFP visited his consulting room, a young Comorian woman “who lives with spirits and self harms” was waiting to see him along with “a Moroccan desperate” about his failing bakery.
“People don’t talk when they come for the first time,” he said. “I have to guess” what is wrong. Some are having trouble at home or at work, have health problems or are looking for “the love of their life”, he said.
– ‘Everyone has a star’ –
The mostly West African witch doctors operating in France — who see themselves as healers of the soul — have learned to adapt to malheurs of their French clients.
Many go to them as others would go to a psychologist or a clarevoyant, experts say.
Anthropologist Liliane Kuczynski, author of the definitive book, “African marabouts in Paris”, found clients come from a wide social spectrum, from undocumented migrants to graduates and teachers.
“Far from being obscure and marginal, belief in superstitions and the paranormal has become a constantly rising majority phenomenon,” French polling company Ifop found in 2020.
“Marabouts are particularly gifted with emotional intelligence,” anthropologist Marie Miran-Guyon of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris told AFP.
“And for some it works. Placebo effect or not, from the moment people believe it can make a difference,” it can, she added.
But Monsieur Fakoly, a Guinean healer working in Paris, who comes from a line of marabouts, had his own view of how it works.
“Every one of us has a star. If it is dirty, people fail and have bad luck. So you have to purify the soul,” he said.
“Prayers and advice will help the person feel better. We listen, we give medicine, but not the kind you get in a pharmacy!” said the healer, one of eight interviewed by AFP.
– ‘The spirits are working on me’ –
Raymond, 61, had just arrived in Sheikh Issa’s consulting room. The sheikh slowly shook his hand, pressing his thumb to “test the energy… I feel it’s angry, that things are not good.”
Then Raymond picked up a pen and brought it to his lips without saying a word. In the silence, the sheikh wrote in his notebook, then traced some lines between the letters to evoke the “16 spirits” using a technique called geomancy.
“My ears are hot, I feel a bar in the middle of my forehead,” he told his client. “The spirits are working on me.”
Raymond — who asked that we not use his real name — was convinced his ex-wife had “cast a spell on him” after they divorced a decade ago. He was tired and in pain and “I went to work like a zombie”.
Rather than go to a doctor he sought succour at a prophetic African church, but to no avail. So he began to consult healers who read shells. “All they did was take my money,” he said.
A fellow construction worker recommended Sheikh Issa. “It was if he had lived alongside me all those years,” Raymond recalled. “He recounted my life from A to Z. I couldn’t believe it.”
The sheikh prepared him potions in West African jars called canaris. “Take the canari home wash yourself with the potion,” Raymond remembered him telling him.
From that day on “I got my health back”, said Raymond.
– ‘Taboo’ –
“Some (marabouts) are like psychotherapists… while others are swindlers,” said anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
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,” he added.
Anyone who says they have the gift and some knowledge of Islam, divination and miracle working can call themselves a marabout.
Some charge no more than a dozen euros for an appointment, though the price can go up to several hundred or thousands for a sacrifice, even tens of thousands in some cases.
Therapist Assa Djelou regularly receives clients who have been let down by marabouts.
She said some have a “dangerous” hold on people. Rather than “facing up to reality”, the healers convince people their problems “have been caused by spells cast on them, which can lead to anxiety and depression”.
The French police only get involved when there are complaints about fraud or practising medicine illegally. But such cases are rare and there’s a “taboo” about talking about it, said Djelou.
– ‘Dependent’ on witch doctors –
In sport, where superstition is commonplace, things can also quickly get out of hand.
“Careers are short and the least injury” can be catastrophic, said Thibault, the pastor who has supported several top athletes. Sometimes they need help because they “do not have the inner strength to get over everything” thrown at them.
But “what these marabouts do is very dangerous”, he claimed.
Former footballer Cisse Baratte told AFP how he fell under the influence of witch doctors as a rising young player plucked from the Ivory Coast to play in France. Soon he had become “dependent” on the amulets, “protection belts” and sacrifices they made for him.
The legendary French football manager Claude Le Roy, who managed six African national teams, knows the problem well.
He was even threatened and branded the “white sorcerer” for driving marabouts away from his staff and players.
“Some players have a need to talk with their marabouts, it can comfort them, and it is also a link with their homeland,” he added.
Even though he insists that “he doesn’t believe in the slightest” in their powers, Le Roy is still troubled by one incident.
In 1997, after a catastrophic away leg in the Champions League against Steaua Bucarest which they lost 3-0, Paris Saint-Germain had to win by four goals to go through.
Desperate for anything that might help, the club paid “a grand Malian marabout” 500 euros.
“He asked us for photos of the players and their numbers, and just before the home leg told us that number 18 would score the fourth goal in the 37th minute.”
PSG won 5-0, with its number 18 scoring the fourth goal in the 41st minute…