The 8 greatest sporting curses
Think your team’s inability to build a premiership dynasty is the fault of the gods? It could be true.
Alliance Magazine - Oct/Nov 2019
WORDS: Ben Smithurst | ILLUSTRATIONS: Strongpencil
1 - The Legend of Bill Barilko’s bones
Damned team: Ice hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs
The gist: 1951 was a glory year for Ukrainian-Canadian Bashin’ Bill Barilko, the 24-year-old scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime to claim a famous victory. Then, in the off-season, he went on a fishing trip with his dentist, because it was the 1950s and all leisure activities were torn from plotlines in Leave It To Beaver. Only his dentist’s self-piloted floatplane crashed in remote Quebec, and both disappeared. The grammatically debatable Maple Leafs didn’t win another title until 1962 – 11 years after Barilko’s plane crashed… and the same year they finally found his body (and his dentist’s).
2 - The Curse of the Colonel
Damned team: Japanese baseball’s Hanshin Tigers
The gist: Fan celebrations are different the world over. In Australia, we have tickertape parades; in the USA, a competition win (or loss) is reason to destroy one’s own city
with a spontaneous riot. In Japan, Hanshin fans celebrated a victory in the 1985 Championship Series by kidnapping a statue of Colonel Sanders from a local KFC… and throwing it into the local Dōtonbori River. Despite having died five years earlier, this desecration is supposed to have enraged the chicken-bothering Kentuckian restauranteur, who condemned Hanshin from beyond the grave. The result: 18 years of coming last or almost last, and ongoing folly in the Japanese Championship Series, which continues despite the statue’s recovery from the depths in 2009.
3 - The Socceroos’ witch doctor hex
Damned team: The Australian football team
The gist: Mexico, 1969. The Socceroos are preparing to play Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970 World Cup. To get a pre-game edge, wrote late Australian football godhead Johnny Warren in his autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, the team consulted a witch doctor, or ‘nyunga’, who buried bones near the goal posts, cursed the opposition and bedevilled a victory to Australia. The Socceroos won 3–1, but when the players refused to scrape up the
good/bad doctor’s $1000 payment, the curse was reversed. “From that moment that he put the curse on, everything went wrong for the team,” said Warren. Australia made the 1974 World Cup finals, failing to score a goal, then subsequently failed to requalify… for 32 years. The twist? After reading of the curse, TV provocateur John Safran visited Mozambique in 2004 and hired yet another nyunga to lift the spell, as seen in the second series of John Safran vs God. It worked. Australia reached the second round at Germany 2006, and has qualified for every World Cup since.
4 - The Curse of the Bears
Damned team: The North Sydney District Rugby League Football Club
The gist: A foundation side in the NSW Rugby League (now the NRL), the Bears entered the competition in 1908 – winning their only premierships consecutively in 1921–22. Their ground, North Sydney Oval, was often celebrated as the league’s most picturesque. Then, according to folklore, the local Cammeraygal people were reminded of a curse dating back to the arrival of the First Fleet, placed in response to their dispossession. The hex was reactivated… and Norths were doomed forevermore. “I’m not sure how accurate the curse theory is, but the Bears made it to four preliminary finals in the 1990s without reaching a single Grand Final, so it’s possible,” said one of the club’s greatest ever players, Greg Florimo, in 2007. “We’re willing to try just about anything at this point.” Florimo’s tactic involved having a local Cammeraygal elder, Uncle Max, ’cleanse’ the oval with a smoking ceremony. It may have come a little late. Merging with hated rivals Manly in 2000, the franchise fell apart after three years. In 2007, Norths, by then a second-tier team, lost the grand final with 13 seconds to go – beaten by a forward pass try. In 2008, they exited the finals with two consecutive losses, despite being minor premiers. In 2010, they came last.
5 - The Curse of the Red Fox
Damned team: The Melbourne Demons
The gist: The Dees were the dominant VFL team in the decade from 1954, appearing in eight grand finals (seven consecutive) and winning six flags. Then, despite having won nine of the first dozen games of the 1965 season, the Dees decided to dump future AFL Coach of the Century, Norm Smith. By courier. On a Friday night. Enraged fans and an enthusiastic press piled into the club’s administrators, and Smith was shortly reinstated – but it was too late to appease the footy gods. Melbourne wouldn’t make the finals for another 22 years. And when they finally did reach another decider, in 1988, Hawthorn clobbered them by 96 points. The Demons’ 1964 premiership, under Smith, remains their last.
6 - The Damnation of Derby County
Damned team: Derby County FC, England
The gist: In 1895, now second division team Derby County FC moved to a new home pitch, called The Baseball Ground. In so doing, they claimed land that was been being used as a camp by a group of Romani people (called ‘gypsies’ in the objectionable parlance of the time). Forced to move along, the enraged Romani supposedly cursed the team never to win the FA Cup — kicking off a long, luckless, losing run that would continue through two world wars. By 1946, times were desperate. Having finally made the final, a club representative reportedly ’met with some gypsies’ to plead that the curse be removed. Remarkably, in that game, with the scores tied 1-1, the ball burst – and with it, Derby’s run of bad luck. They’d go on to win 4-1… and be very nice thereafter to itinerants in caravans.
7 - The Talledega Jinx
Damned location: The Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama
The gist: NASCAR has no shortage of superstitions – generations of the sport’s figurehead family, the Andrettis, have infamously (and occasionally, comically) failed to win the Indy 500 (73 starts and counting since 1969). But it’s Alabama’s famous speedway that attracts the real bad mojo. Rumoured to have been either cursed by a Native American shaman, or built on an Indian burial ground, speedway fans/probable Stephen King readers have long noted the circuit’s over-representation among untimely deaths and huge crashes. Rationalists argue that, as the USA’s largest loop, Talladega allows faster speeds and less margin for error. But what of 1970 Cup champion, Bobby Isaac, who pulled over mid-race in 1973 for no apparent reason despite having no mechanical problems? “A voice told him he needed to get out of the car,” his wife later recalled. Spooky.
8 - Bedevilment by Billy Goat
Damned team: Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs
The gist: “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again,” thundered a telegram by the owner of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, William Sianis, to team owner Philip K. Wrigley in 1945. “You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.” As was his custom, Sianis had taken his pet goat to the ground, only to be asked to leave because its odour was ’bothering other fans’. The curse was eventually broken in 2016 – 108 years after the Cubs’ previous win, and 46 years after Sianis’s own death.
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