Pregame Rituals Give World Cup Players A Measure Of Control

Bizarre rituals have helped footballers take their minds off of big matches for decades. Champions editor Paul Simpson tells NPR's Lynn Neary about the quirky routines in this year's World Cup.

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Wearing your socks inside out or taking seven showers in a row. If you're a sports fan, you know that some players have unique routines they perform before each game. With the World Cup in full swing, the pre-game rituals of international soccer players are on display. Some are odd, others downright outlandish. Here to talk about the history and significance of these rituals is Paul Simpson. He's the editor of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. And he joins us from London. Thanks for being here, Mr. Simpson.

PAUL SIMPSON: No worries.

NEARY: Now, I know these pre-game rituals are not new. They've been around for a long time. What are some of the most interesting in the history of soccer, as we call it - or football?

SIMPSON: I think some of the most interesting probably, looking back at the history of the World Cup - I mean in Chile in 1962. They had a kind of - which I've never heard any other team do - they had a ritual where before a game they would either eat the national food or drink the national drink of the opponent. So before they faced the Swiss, they ate cheese and then - which they won. So they thought this was obviously working. So they had spaghetti before they faced Italy. And they won, too. And they actually drank vodka, of all things, before they played the Soviet Union. And they actually won. They actually went down semi-finals because they only had coffee before they played Brazil. And maybe they should have had something a bit more authentically Brazilian, if you like.

NEARY: Now, wait. Did they do this right before the game - eating spaghetti - right before the game?

SIMPSON: Often in soccer games, the team will have a meal the night before the game, where the players focus on the event. And the coaches may, you know, just assess the mood of the squad, if you like. So typically the night before one of these games, they would eat cheese, spaghetti, drink vodka or what have you.

NEARY: Well, do any of the players or teams in this year's World Cup have some particularly interesting rituals?

SIMPSON: Mexico's striker Javier Hernandez drops to his knees in prayer before every game, normally on the pitch. Luis Suarez, an Uruguayan striker kisses tattoos of his children's names as a sort of good luck charm. And England's fullback Leighton Baines has a habit of tying and untying his shoelaces.

NEARY: Do you have an insight into why players think these rituals are so important? Why they really feel like they have to do them?

SIMPSON: Athletes are actually perfectionists. They're often, you know, all very good at the game. They're often very anxious about their performance, particularly as the game approaches. So I think actually having something you can control like tying and untying your shoelaces - things that actually they can focus on to deflect their anxiety about the match. These kind of rituals, if you do enough of them, you are in control again and can actually sort of keep that at play for a bit.

NEARY: Paul Simpson. He co-authored the book "Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?" which was released in May. Thanks for joining us.

SIMPSON: Glorious. Thanks again, love.

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