Soccer on Robben Island was a 'way of survival'

Playing soccer, often clandestinely and using rolled-up rags for balls, raised the spirits of South African political activists jailed on Robben Island over three decades ago.

Now the former prisoners’ experiences will give hope to millions in a new movie, launched on Tuesday, about their formation in 1965 of a hitherto unrecognised soccer association on Robben Island.

“The lesson from Robben Island and the lesson from South Africa is one for all the world,” world football body Fifa representative, Jerome Champagne, said at the launch of the movie More Than Just a Game in Cape Town.

“It is very important that this film is seen all around the world. The message is a model.”

After four years of wrangling with prison authorities and playing under cover, the Robben Island inmates were given permission in 1965 to start their own soccer association, which they dubbed Makana FA.

At a time of little hope, with the state clamping down on opponents and jailing critics in a bid to retain minority privilege, inmates of the island prison used soccer to help keep them grounded.

“For us, playing soccer on Robben Island was just another way of survival and finding sanity in a situation intended to dehumanise us,” former inmate and Makana player Anthony Suze told the launch ceremony.

“A game that other people take for granted helped a group of people find sanity.”

The movie, which cost about R20-million ($2,8-million) to make, is set for worldwide release by the end of the year.

On Wednesday, Makana FA is to be granted honorary membership of Fifa in a ceremony on Robben Island, a precursor to a special World XI versus Africa XI match to mark the 89th birthday of Nelson Mandela.

Among the players billed to play in Mandela’s honour are one-time Brazilian great Pele, three-time African player of the year Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon and former European player of the year Ruud Gullit from Holland.

South Africa is to host the Soccer World Cup in 2010, the first time the event will be held on the African continent. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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