So Martínez, a self-proclaimed witch and part-time babysitter, got to work. She focused intensely on Messi, she started repeating a prayer and poured a little oil into a bowl of water. If the oil remained missing, she was safe. If it gathered in the middle, it was cursed.
“He stuck together like a magnet,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to cure it on my own.”
She took to Twitter and called her fellow witches Argentina. “Sisters who heal the evil eye, Messi is very impressed,” she said. “I need your help.”
A thousand people shared his tweet, many of whom claimed that they, too, were witches and would be working to protect Argentina’s golden boy.
Argentina have not lost since.
Accountants have set their odds, players have placed their bets and pundits have made their picks for Sunday’s World Cup final between Argentina and France, but their analysis of the matchup – focused only on the 22 players in field – may not be considered a joker: the army of Argentine witches.
In recent weeks, hundreds, if not thousands of Argentine women who call themselves “brujas,” or witches, have taken up arms — in the form of prayers, altars, candles, amulets and burning sage — to protect the beloved soccer team of the their nation in its quest to secure a Developing Nations Cup title and its first in 36 years.
“We think of ourselves as agents who, from love, can care, protect and sow happiness,” said Rocío Cabral Menna, 27, a witch and high school teacher in Messi’s hometown of Rosario, burning a leaf laurel wreath with its foretold marking in a ceremony before each game. Players compete on the field, she said, and at home, “the witches take care of them.”
The trend caught fire after Argentina’s shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening match, forcing Argentines to look for any way to help the squad this nation of 47 million has pinned its hopes on.
After that game, several witches started a WhatsApp group to coach other witches on how to help the national team. They called it the Argentine Association of Witches, or La Brujineta, a play on “bruja” and “La Scaloneta”, Argentina’s nickname for its national team.
“I thought there would be at most 10 people,” said the group’s founder, Antonella Spadafora, 23, a witch who runs a convenience store in a town in northwest Argentina. Within days, more than 300 people had joined the group. There was so much demand last week that they started a Twitter account. She gained 25,000 followers in seven days.
“We got tired of being hidden witches,” said Andrea Maciel, 28, a witch and graphic designer in Buenos Aires who helps run the group.
The witches said their main goal is to use rituals to absorb negative energy from Argentine players and exchange it for positive energy. This, however, leaves them exhausted.
“Headaches, dizziness, vomiting, body aches,” Spadafora said. “We’re soaking up all the bad vibes,” she added. “It wears you out a lot, because these are very public figures who have so much negative energy from other people.”
So, to spread the burden, party leaders now split witches into groups before each game, each focused on protecting a particular player.
While many of the witches said they are working to look after Messi and his teammates, others are attempting to cast spells on opposing players, particularly goalkeepers. One ritual involves freezing a piece of paper with a player’s name on it, saying an expletive, and then burning the frozen piece of paper just before the game.
But Brujineta’s group has warned that trying to curse France could backfire, particularly because of the team’s striker, Kylian Mbappé.
“We do not recommend freezing France, as its players are protected by dark entities and energy can recover!!” the group announced on Twitter Wednesday. “We have seen very dark things in the French team and especially in Mbappé. Please share!!!”
World Cup-focused witches represent a wide variety of occult disciplines, more New Age than ancient and indigenous. Practices include black magic, white magic, Wicca, Reiki, Tarot, astrology, and healers of the evil eye and other ailments.
Some women said they were born with special abilities, while others said they developed their abilities through study. Several said they began practicing witchcraft as part of a growing feminist movement in Argentina that began in 2018 with the fight for legal abortion.
“I think we all have magic inside,” said Cabral Menna.
But the witches aren’t the only Argentines looking to aid their team in the supernatural realm. On matchdays, many other Argentines practiced a kind of cábala, or superstition designed to avoid causing their team bad luck. The cábalas often involve people sticking to the exact same routine if the team is winning, including where they watch the game, with whom, in what clothes, at what volume and on what channel.
The practice is so widespread that millions of Argentines probably practice some kind of cábala, a word that comes from kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Cábalas has been especially pronounced this year following Argentina’s loss in his opening match.
Adrián Coria, Messi’s childhood coach in Rosario and later on for the national team, said he witnessed the first defeat with his family in his living room. Then his wife and daughter sent him to a small cabin in the back yard for the second match. “Only,” he said. He has since watched the rest of the World Cup there.
Cabral Menna, the witch of Rosario, said she and her mother witnessed Argentina’s first victory in her mother’s bedroom. “It’s the only part of the house without air conditioning,” she said. “It’s very hot. But we won’t move.”
And Sergio Duri, owner of a restaurant in Rosario with Messi’s signature on the wall, said he now watches matches in his kitchen with a dachshund, Omar, while his wife watches in their bedroom with the other dachshund. Sweet. “If this comes out, everyone will know that we are all completely crazy,” she said. “But these are cábalas, you know?”
The players are also practicing the cábalas. Alejandro Gómez, Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul, three midfielders, started walking the pitch an hour before kick-off chewing candy, a tradition that started last year when Argentina won the Copa América, the main South American soccer tournament.
So now the question for the witches is: what will happen on Sunday?
“We don’t want to give information as if we have the absolute last word,” Spadafora said. “But obviously we’ve started working, and obviously we’ve tested with most of the means at our disposal – esoteric means, for example, pendulums, Tarot, all methods of divination – and this indicates that Argentina will win.”
Azucena Agüero Blanch, a 72-year-old professional fortune teller once consulted by former president Carlos Menem, also explained that she is working with magic stones to ensure Argentina’s victory. “Many people who are pushing for Argentina to win have asked me to work on this,” she told an Argentine newspaper.
On Friday night, Martínez was at her candlelit home in Buenos Aires, dressed in a robe covered in tigers and lighting candles on an altar that included Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god; and a photo of Diego Maradona, the late Argentine soccer star who is something like a deity to many in this country.
Martínez said he has a number of methods to protect the national team, including a practice that involves swinging a pendulum, or wooden cylinder on a string, over a player’s jersey number and then burning cotton doused in dye of mistletoe. He said he follows the news for updates on player ailments and then uses the pendulum to alleviate them. “The pendulum is the most powerful tool I have,” he explained.
He said he also had psychic moments during matches. During Argentina’s match against Australia on December 3, he said he had a vision of Argentina striker Julián Álvarez celebrating a goal.
At 17:13, he tweeted: “Julian Álvarez, I want your goal (eye candle candle eye candle).”
Four minutes later, Álvarez scored.
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times)