Spooky Sports!

In light of Halloween, The Spectator is here with some eerie tales describing the mysterious curses that have plagued your favorite teams and players!

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Century-long trophy droughts, star players falling off because of mysterious circumstances, angry spirits haunting the success of teams that have offended them—the world of sports is filled with such superstitions, from the damning words of a manager that would drag his team into ruin to video games that seem to prophesize the misfortune of the athletes that graced their release covers. While most of these beliefs have no logical backing and are often fan-made explanations for observed trends, they become instilled into the folklore of the teams they affect and their backstories still garner fascination to this day. Plus, there is no better time to sit back, relax, and read some of these tales of athletic misfortune than on this spooky Halloween. 

Béla and Benfica

A journeyman who would end up coaching teams in over 10 countries, Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann was always viewed as a controversial man. Though a tactical genius who pioneered the ultra-offensive 4-2-4 formation, Guttmann was known for his short temper and stubbornness, which  often reared its ugly head in disputes with club boards. Nevertheless, Portuguese team SL Benfica took the risk by prying Béla away from their arch-rivals Porto and giving him the role of manager in 1959. In three years, Guttmann already met expectations by guiding Benfica to two Primeira Liga titles and a Portuguese Cup. But the mastermind would go even further by coaching the “Eagles” to win their first European Cup against Barcelona in 1961 and defend their European title in 1962 against a Real Madrid team that won the first five European Cups.

However, the celebrations would not last long. When Guttmann reportedly asked for a pay raise after his second European Cup win, the Portuguese club refused and even went so far as to terminate his contract. In a furious fit, Guttman allegedly retorted, “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions.” These cursed words would haunt the Portuguese team to the present day, as Benfica have remained a juggernaut in Portugal but have lost all eight of the European finals they have appeared in. The team will have another chance to right their wrongs in this season’s UEFA Champions League, but since they are currently lounging at the bottom of their group, it appears that the curse of Béla Guttmann will persist for at least another year.

Presidents’ Trophy: A Poisoned Chalice

On the other side of the Atlantic, another tournament curse is becoming prominent in North America’s National Hockey League. Awarded to the team that has accrued the most points by the end of the regular season, the Presidents’ Trophy is supposed to celebrate the achievements of the strongest team in the League and the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. However, the Presidents’ Trophy has recently become a poisoned chalice for the team lifting it, as every one of its winners since 2013 has fallen in the NHL Playoffs during the same season and thus failed to appear in the Stanley Cup Final.

The first team to fall under this curse was the Boston Bruins, who won the 2014 Presidents’ Trophy after a 117-point season. However, they would be defeated in the second round of the Playoffs by their bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in seven games. Since then, except for the New York Rangers, who made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2015, no winner of the Presidents’ Trophy has even gone past the second round. Perhaps most shockingly, two of these unfortunate winners would be defeated in the opening round by 8th-seeded teams. First to suffer this shame were the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were resoundingly beaten 0-4 by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then, just a few months ago, the Boston Bruins, fresh off of breaking the record of most games and points won in a season, surrendered a 3-1 lead to the last-seeded Florida Panthers to lose 3-4 in one of the most remarkable upsets in NHL history.


Billy Penn

Though rare, sports curses have also plagued entire cities, and no such case is as famous as the Curse of Billy Penn that gripped the major sports teams of Philadelphia for 30 years—and that, to an extent, persists even today. The alleged hex involves the statue of William Penn, the historic founder of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, atop the Philadelphia Town Hall tower. As the Town Hall and William Penn were historic symbols of the city, it was informally agreed upon by the city that the Philadelphia Art Commission should not allow any new building to be higher than the one holding up its legendary founder. So when the One Liberty Place skyscraper was constructed in 1987 and Philadelphia’s franchises started suffering a pattern of failures, the urban legend of “Billy” Penn’s curse naturally took root in the minds of the city’s sport-crazed fans. 

The voodoo began immediately as the Philadelphia Flyers, who had won consecutive Stanley Cups a decade ago, had to settle for second place in the 1987 Final after losing to the Edmonton Oilers. Then, the 76ers lost their NBA Finals in 2001 to the Los Angeles Lakers despite having MVP Allen Iverson, while the Eagles lost three successive NFC Championships from 2001 to 2003. The Curse would be considered lifted when the Comcast Center, the new tallest tower, was adorned with a figurine of Penn in 2007. A year later, the Phillies would win the 2008 World Series by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Eagles would attain their first-ever Super Bowl a decade after that. However, the Curse of Billy Penn remains a big part of Philadelphia’s sporting culture and, in a way, is still affecting its teams today as two of its franchises in the “Big Four” sports, the 76ers and the Flyers, have yet to triumph in their respective competitions.

EA Jinxes

Last but not least, video games have gotten into the mix of potential curse producers, as shown by the recent trend involving the cover stars of the EA Sports franchises, notably FIFA and Madden. Much like the Presidents’ Trophy voodoo in the NHL, appearing as the star of the most popular sports video game in the world is meant to mark the prime of a player’s career. However, in more cases than not, appearing in one of these game covers has seemingly coincided with a dip in a player’s form due to injury or other circumstances.

The Madden trend was the first to be noticed when Barry Sanders, one of the best running backs to play in the NFL, unexpectedly announced his retirement shortly after being released as the cover star for Madden 2000. He was followed by a string of other players hitting the peak of their careers but subsequently crashing upon being hailed as the cover man for the game. FIFA was no different, as even the exceptional caliber of players the game had on its cover couldn’t save them from their predicted misfortune. English striker Wayne Rooney decorated the 2006 edition and got sent off at the World Cup that same year as his country was defeated by Portugal. His former teammate, striker Cristiano Ronaldo, was involved in rape allegations shortly after being on FIFA 19. More recently, FIFA 21’s poster child Kylian Mbappé had an abysmal Euros tournament where he missed a crucial penalty that eliminated his nation, France. Now as we head into 2024, FC 24’s Erling Haaland and Madden 24’s Josh Allen will surely hope that their abilities will not pull them into this infamous trend.

Whether you choose to believe in them or not, it is undeniable that these curses and voodoos have played a big role in cultivating the intricate and fascinating folklore and history of the sports and fanbases they involve. As sports continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see what new superstitious tales will arise in the future. But until then, the mystery and curiosity invoked by these folk legends can still be cherished. Happy Halloween!