Would Australia be at the World Cup in Russia if it weren’t for the blood of a sacrificial chicken being poured over John Safran’s head by a witch doctor in an empty stadium in Mozambique?
The superstitious might find it hard to argue against. In 2004 when Safran was filming his John Safran vs God show for SBS, Australian football was in the doldrums and the Socceroos had been absent from the World Cup for 30 years.
The cause, according to former Socceroo captain Johnny Warren in his book Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer In Australia, was a curse put on the team in 1969.
While playing Rhodesia in Mozambique, the apocryphal tale has the Australians seeking the help of a local witch doctor (nyunga) to overcome their rivals. When it worked, the Australians were either unable or refused to pay for the service and the curse was then transferred to the Socceroos.
Enter Safran, the unlikeliest of heroes, who after being told of the hex through a boss at SBS made the trip to Southeastern Africa. In a ceremony that channeled the now dead nyunga, Safran paid the overdue bill before being covered in the blood of a chicken that moments earlier was still clucking.
One year later, Australia stood on the precipice of qualification for the 2006 World Cup in the must-win game against Uruguay.
“When we filmed it at the time, it was a bit more, not meditative … but lots of the other segments in the show were a lot more fast paced and crazy. I was worried it was too slow for everyone, like everyone was going to get bored,” Safran says
“It was not the case and I kind of forgot about the story for a while.
“Then I woke up when we qualified my emails had just blown up. I had 100 emails from strangers going ‘It worked! It worked!’.
“I realised religion is true. Doing my rituals had worked,” he jokes. Warren died less than three weeks after the episode’s airing. While initially revealing Australia lost its next game to Turkey during the broadcast, fate had other ideas for the Socceroos.
The trip to Russia marks the fourth consecutive tournament the Socceroos have qualified for, with many still painting Safran as Australia’s Rasputin of the round ball.
“He [Warren] was a big believer in the curse, so it felt good. He was very grateful that we had gone over to do it. I felt like I’d done something good for once in my life,” Safran says.
“A lot of people say I don’t get enough credit for it, but don’t worry, I get too much.
“I also get asked for other sporting events from people about their local team. If Collingwood is down a few points there’ll be a tweet saying ‘Safran, sacrifice a chicken’.
“I haven’t done any animal sacrifices since then.”