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Three famed 'curses' from sports history

Matthew Doyle
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
39   //    Timeless

The dreaded spectre of “the Curse” is something both players and fans of elite sports will be uncomfortably familiar with.

Do malevolent forces knowingly act to prevent a team from winning a coveted championship over a lengthy period? Or is “the Curse” just the superstitious beliefs of players and fans looking to explain away their misfortunes?

What follows are the stories of how “The Curse” became attached to three teams across three different sports in America and Europe. All three stories have a disgruntled actor who, in retribution for a grave insult or offence, heaped misery on generations of players and fans.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

Arguably the most famous of all sports-related curses, the Curse of the Billy Goat was allegedly placed on the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball franchise in 1945 by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, William Sianis.

William Sianis and Murphy the Billy Goat. (Image source: usa.greekreporter.com).
William Sianis and Murphy the Billy Goat. (Image source: usa.greekreporter.com).

So upset that security insist he leave Wrigley Field during game four of the 1945 World Series because the smell of his sodden pet goat was disturbing other fans, Sianis allegedly said: “Them Cubs, they ain't gonna win no more.”

any have interpreted this to mean that the Cubs would never again win a National League pennant in Sianis’ lifetime. The Cubs went on to lose that World Series and had to wait until 2016 to break the curse by winning the National League Championship Series, doing so on the 46th anniversary of Sianis’ death.

However, Sianis’ family have questioned the accuracy of this account, claiming that he sent a telegram to the Cubs’ owner, Philip K. Wrigley, that said: “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again … because you insulted my goat.”

While the truth about the origins of the Curse of the Billy Goat remain ambiguous, what is certain is that the Cubs endured 71 years of disappointment before their National League Championship Series win in 2016, and subsequent victory in that year’s World Series, remarkably a first for the franchise since 1908.

Several bizarre incidents enhanced William Sianis’ legend. From a stray black cat – you couldn’t make this up, seriously – circling third baseman Ron Santo in 1969 at Shea Stadium, which supposedly precipitated a late-season collapse, to the 1984 National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres when the Cubs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by losing three straight games while leading 2-0 in the best-of-five series, and most famously, the “Steve Bartman Incident”.

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In 2003, the Cubs found themselves up three 3-2 against the Florida Marlins and just five outs from capturing the National League Championship. Sat in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113 at Wrigley Field for the sixth game of the series was Cubs’ fan Steve Bartman. Poor Steve tried to catch a foul ball only to deflect it from Cubs’ outfielder Moisés Alou. Had Alou caught the ball it would have left the Cubs just four outs from the National League pennant. Instead, they surrendered eight runs in the inning to lose the game 8-3, before the Marlins eliminated them from the series in game seven the next day.


Benfica and Béla Guttmann

Portuguese club Benfica won football’s prestigious European Cup back-to-back in 1961 and 1962 under the guidance of their Hungarian manager, Béla Guttmann. After Benfica’s victory in 1962, Guttmann asked the club for an improved contract in recognition of his outstanding successes on the pitch. However, Benfica rejected Guttmann’s request, to their great cost. Guttmann subsequently cursed the club by declaring that “not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion”. 

Béla Guttmann. (Image source: Getty Images).
Béla Guttmann. (Image source: Getty Images).

To further compound Benfica’s suffering, their Portuguese rivals, FC Porto, have won the competition on two occasions, first in 1987, and again in 2004.


Mayo’s Gaelic Football Team and the Curse of 1951

Mayo’s ongoing quest to secure a first All-Ireland Football Championship since 1951 is without doubt the most captivating saga in Irish sport.

The story goes that after winning the All-Ireland Football Championship in 1951, Mayo travelled home from Croke Park in Dublin in the back of a truck. In the village of Foxford, they encountered a funeral cortège but failed to stop and pay their respects. The local priest, so incensed by this scandalous act of disrespect, put a curse on Mayo that they wouldn’t win another All-Ireland Championship until every member of their 1951-winning team had died.

Mayo's 1951 All-Ireland Winning Team. (Image source: irishtimes.com).
Mayo's 1951 All-Ireland Winning Team. (Image source: irishtimes.com).

Since 1951, Mayo have contested nine All-Ireland Football Championship finals only to come home disappointed each time. In the last decade alone, they have lost three finals to Dublin, in 2013, 2016 and 2017, by a single point, and to Donegal in 2012 by just four points. So, the famine goes on, as they say in the west of Ireland. Only one member of the 1951 team survives, Paddy Prendergast, following the death of ‘The Flying Doctor’ Padraig Carney in 2019.

Although the Curse of 1951 apparently continues to stymie Mayo in their continued efforts to win the All-Ireland Championship, two of the main protagonists in the story have challenged the curse’s origins. Prendergast and Carney have asserted that the team travelled home separately by either car or train and that there was no mention of a curse at the time. Whatever it’s provenance, the Curse of 1951 certainly makes for a good story.

Ah, but they all make for good stories, don’t they?

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