“It was like a spiral,” said Gilles Yapi Yapo, a former Ivory Coast international football star who said he was cheated out of 200,000 euros ($213,000) by a witch doctor.
“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, or marabout.
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 healer in Paris.
“I wasn’t really attracted by the occult,” Yapi Yapo told AFP, “but growing up in the Ivory Coast going to a marabout was normal, and it isn’t seen as bad as long as you are not looking to harm anyone.”
The healer said his family had been “cursed”, which was stopping him “succeeding and being happy” and prescribed making “sacrifices to counteract the curses”.
Sacrificing a cock, goat or ram started at 500 euros and began to climb to “colossal sums”, he said.
Then one day it became darker, “something like black magic”, Yapi Yapo said.
“The marabout made me believe that the spirits he worked for liked me and wanted to make me rich.
“That was the bait,” he said.
‘Sacrifice his son’
The sacrifices needed to attain these riches cost “40,000, 50,000, then 60,000 euros”.
When the footballer got financially stretched, the witch doctor said that “‘if he has no more money he’ll have to sacrifice his son’. I had the strength to say ‘stop’ and I never went back to him,” Yapi Yapo said.
In two years, he said he was conned into paying 200,000 euros, 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.”
Joel Thibault, an evangelical pastor to several top athletes in France, has had to deal with the “disastrous consequences” of footballers and basketball players caught in similar circumstances.
“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,” Thibault added.
“I see the damage… players who are depressed and who have had suicidal thoughts.”
‘He became like a god’
Another Ivory Coast-born footballer, Cisse Baratte told AFP how he went through the same hell.
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.”
He turned to witch doctors again when he began playing in Europe in the 1990s.
“I was always injured,” he said. “The marabout said that it was because I wasn’t taking the showers with the potions at the right time or because it was cold…”
In the dressing rooms, he noticed teammates from Senegal or Cameroon also had “protection” — “perfumes” or belts under their jerseys.
Thibault said it has taken the Paul Pogba extortion case, where the French star was held against his will last year, to throw a spotlight on how serious the problem has become “with more and more money” in football.
The French World Cup winner was accused by his brother and a childhood friend of paying a witch doctor to cast a spell on his team mate Kylian Mbappe — an allegation that Pogba and the marabout denied to police.
“Players tell me that when some have anti-doping tests, doctors can’t get a needle into them until they have called their marabout… So people know about this,” Thibault insisted.
Several healers say they feel “stigmatized” by the headlines the Pogba case has sparked.
“The controversy has damaged our profession,” Monsieur Fakoly, a Guinean-born healer who works outside Paris told AFP. “It’s really the dark side.” People should distinguish between witch doctors “who cast spells” and healers “who help”, he said.
But as long as there are players look for “shortcuts to success”, witch doctors’ influence on the game is “not going to stop, unfortunately”, said Yapi Yapo.