The Rational Ref

No accounting for rationality when 'luck' is on the line

It's remarkable that many players still feel the way they dress or cut their hair affects their play

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 4:10am

Whenever a free kick is awarded, have you ever noticed the player taking it has to be the one who places the ball? Even if a teammate, not an opponent, helps to position the ball, the actual kicker has to have the last touch. Astute goalkeepers can use this to their advantage when opponents are trying to deceive them during a direct free kick.

Such quirks, rituals and superstitions are surprisingly prominent among players. The world of soccer sustains a startling number of silly, stupid and spectacular superstitions. Here are some entertaining superstitions grouped by their timing in relation to match day:

Days before a match, some players like to grow a "lucky" moustache or "lucky" beard. Others like to have their hair shorn or cut short. For instance, Tottenham Hotspur's Jermaine Defoe insists on having a close crop before games to avoid injury. "I have to, I only ever seem to get injured when I have longer hair."

On the match day morning, some players have to remove some "unlucky" facial hair.

Liverpool's Pepe Reina, meanwhile, is preoccupied with his car. He explains: "Six hours before kick-off at Anfield, and before I can even think about the game, I have to get to a petrol station. After getting into the car, I turn the engine on and look at the fuel gauge. It is almost full. I still need petrol, though, so I head to the same garage that I always go to when Liverpool are at home, a small filling station almost exactly halfway between my home and the stadium. I get there, open the petrol cap and begin to refuel. I am only at the pump for 20 seconds or so before the tank is full, so I go in to pay. The cashier gives me a funny look."

On the way to the match, players often adorn themselves with lucky charms such as a pair of special cufflinks, diamond earrings or a gold bracelet, either given to them or worn by them after previously winning an important match. Throughout his Chelsea career, Didier Drogba wore his "lucky" pair of boxer shorts. But towards the crucial end of the 2011-2012 season, which was Drogba's final season with Chelsea, he admitted he could no longer wear them because they were "full of holes". Drogba abandoned his lucky boxer shorts and promptly won the FA Cup and Champions League with Chelsea.

The dressing room is where most soccer superstitions take place. This is because it is the place where perhaps the tensest waiting period occurs before the match and where players still have some semblance of control over their surroundings. Manchester United's Ryan Giggs must always sit in the same corner of the dressing room.

Apparently, the most rigidly followed procedures are those connected with changing clothes. There are too many to mention, but if one takes time to look at the behaviour of players or teammates in the dressing room, there will certainly be some strange sightings.

One famous story involves the late and legendary England captain Bobby Moore. He had to be the last person in the dressing room to put on his shorts, so he would always stand around, holding his shorts, waiting for everyone to finish dressing. Moore's teammate, Martin Peters, said: "[Bobby] never realised, but I used to take the mickey. When he had put on his shorts I would take mine off. He would immediately do the same and not put them back on until I had done so. I used to do this frequently, but he never caught on."

In the tunnel and just prior to entering the pitch, some players come into their own. In a crucial Champions League round-of-16 match in 2009, Arsenal started the second half against Roma with just nine players when William Gallas was still being treated for an injury. Teammate Kolo Toure had waited for Gallas, not out of concern, but out of superstition because he had always insisted on being the last player to emerge from the tunnel.

As Toure emerged from the tunnel following Gallas, he entered the pitch without permission and was promptly cautioned by the referee. Toure said: "The good thing is that I have learnt a new rule. William was adjusting his boots [on the touchline] so maybe that's what saved him from a booking. But it's good I'm the only one that got booked. If it's the both of us, I'm thinking that could be a problem."

Gallas was "saved" from a caution because he wanted to be the last person to step on to the pitch. He deliberately let Toure go on before him. In truth, this pair of goofy Gunners had prioritised their superstitions over any concern for each other or their team.

Knowledge of deeply held superstitions may help explain the odd behaviour seen in certain individuals in soccer.

If you have stories to share about superstitions or rituals from your teammates, favourite players or teams, contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com