June and July will be a special time for all Africans as the world’s most popular tournament comes to the continent for the first time. It should be a time of reflection for those who made this possible. Thousands struggled against apartheid on the streets of South Africa’s cities and towns. A great deal were unjustly arrested and sent to “hell on earth,” better known as Robben Island.
Many brave men suffered and died at the hands of their warders on this notorious island. Yes, it was a place where dreams were crushed and everyday life was an immense struggle, but it was also a place of affirmation, redemption, and birth for a new nation. What the prisoners failed to realize is that they were practicing to govern out in “the real world”. Those political prisoners that were beaten, tortured, and worked nearly to death would become the leadership of a new South Africa.
More than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told, by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, represents a true triumph of the human spirit. It is an inspiring story that teaches us about the transformative power of the beautiful game, a game that brought people together in the most horrific of conditions. It will be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone who has been told they can’t do something or that they aren’t good enough. It is a story that has a universal quality that will be enjoyed by the masses.
Soccer has unified rivals, stopped civil wars, and brought enjoyment to billions of people. Yet a story like this has never been told. It is a narrative that is best described in the words of the prisoners:
- “Football was a way of testing men’s values.”
- “Football gave thousands of prisoners hope, motivation, and a sense of purpose.”
- “Robben Island should be seen as a triumph of the human against the forces of evil…a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness. A triumph of the new South Africa over the old.”
Divisions of organized soccer, run by the Makana Football Association (MFA), would bring pleasure and joy to a place that was founded on torture, fear, and unjust laws. The MFA was an incredible organization, run entirely by prisoners, that created a formal schedule with dozens of fixtures each season. Each and every action of the association was governed by a constitution that brought them into full compliance with FIFA regulations. The matches played on the hallowed grounds around the prison represented some of the best football in the entire country. It wasn’t just the quality of play, but it was the struggle and the passion involved with playing in the first place.
It is an unlikely story of how prisoners challenged their captors and the institution of apartheid that imprisoned them. Justice would eventually be served as apartheid was brought to its knees; it is safe to say that soccer played a small part in that.