Football's inspiring role at notorious island prison

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The Independent Online

Among the tourist attractions in South Africa on World Cup football fans 'must-do' lists, one of the most notorious penal colonies of the last century is right up there.

Robben Island, a barren outcrop off the Cape Town coast, is best known for being home to political prisoners jailed by the old apartheid government, most famously former leader Nelson Mandela and current president Jacob Zuma.

But what few realise is the role football played in shaping resistance at the prison.

Many of the inmates were passionate about the game and used it to help find relief from their grim existence.

It is a little-known story outside of South Africa that has come into focus with the country hosting the continent's first World Cup.

The island fortress, now a World Heritage site, was meant to break the men's spirits as well as their bodies, but football helped keep them sane.

Zuma was a referee, but Mandela, later to become South Africa's first black leader, was kept in isolation with other high-risk prisoners and was not allowed to play.

"He used to watch us from his cell window, standing on a chair or a box," said Mark Shinners, who served a combined 23 years on the island between 1963 and 1990 for conspiring to overthrow the erstwhile whites-only regime.

"But eventually even that was taken away from him."

Warders wouldn't allow inmates a football at first so they tied rags together and played "matches" in their cells, but these were quickly broken up.

Several prisoners started writing letters of complaint, knowing it was within their rights to be allowed to exercise, but it took three long years before authorities finally caved in and let them have a ball.

They soon created a league and it became so serious that the warring factions at the time, the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, put aside their differences.

It culminated in the formation of the Makana Football Association in 1967, named after a prophet banished to the island in 1819.

They put in place the same structures that would apply to any league, based on FIFA frameworks, publishing tables, fixture lists and detailed minutes of meetings.

There were even authorised transfers, often written on tiny scraps of paper.

With Cape Town attracting tens of thousands of foreign vistors during the World Cup, trips to the island have been in big demand, with tourists often having to wait several days to secure their passage on the ferry.

A group of England fans who visted planted their flag in Mandela's old garden as a sign of respect, and even the teams playing at the city's impressive Green Point Stadium have made the pilgrimage.

Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk scrapped a morning training session ahead of their match with Camrooon so his players could go.

"It really was appreciated by the players. We had time for it, and then you have to be able to offer the players something like that," he said.

They were shown the cells and the sandy football pitch where the prisoners played, and it was a moving experience.

"When you walk through the gate and you know everything that happened there, you saw the players get real quiet," midfielder Mark van Bommel said.

In an historic move, FIFA held an executive committee meeting on Robben Island in December in a symbolic gesture highlighting the part soccer played.

President Sepp Blatter said: "Robben Island has written a part of the story of humanity and a very important one.

"One thing that helped them withstand Robben Island was the creation of the Makana Football Association."

Football's world governing body banned the South African Football Association on the grounds of racism in 1964. It was only reinstated in 1992 before being named 2010 World Cup 12 years later.

In 2007, FIFA officialy recognised the Makana Football Association.