More Than Just a Game: Football on Robben Island
Political prisoners, held without trial on South Africa's Robben Island, had created their own football league... following Fifa regulations. The story behind the mini-league and its architects is coming to the big screen: More Than Just a Game opens in SA this month.
"We played soccer on Robben Island with such passion and such detail -- it was another way of survival," said Suze. "Somehow we found a Fifa book there and played according to Fifa rules. In a situation that sought to undermine us, it gave us hope. It is amazing to think a game that people take for granted all around the world was the very same game that gave a group of prisoners sanity and in a way glorified us."
At first the men played covertly in their cells using balls made of paper, cardboard and rags. Then in 1965, after sustained lobbying, the authorities allowed prisoners to play outside on Saturdays. The teams built their own goals and threw off their prison uniforms to put on team colours.
A binding constitution was drawn up by Suze and the referees even took Fifa exams, said Korr. If one of the players transgressed, he was disciplined at a committee hearing. Team managers organised fixtures by writing formal letters to each other, although they may have been in neighbouring cells.
"They loved football, of course," said Korr, "but it was also a way to show they could run things. They were showing they understood due process, even if it had not been legally afforded to them. It was about dignity and survival."
Prisoners in the isolation wing were able to follow the progress of teams through a secret communication system and they found a way to actually watch many of the games, until the authorities built a wall that blocked their view.
I was aware that the prisoners on Robben Island played football from my trips there, post Madiba's [Nelson Mandela's] release. However it was when Chuck Korr, a sports historian, came to see me and gave me the background of the details of the story that I really became excited about it and felt that it was an important story to bring to the big screen.
Why is this an important story to tell?
There were hundreds of people on the island, all with a common cause - they were fighting for our freedom. They were incarcerated on this island, which has the beautiful view of Cape Town, the site of the seat of Parliamentary power of the 'white' minority.
Yet these important imprisoned people were able to try to live their lives in dignity in the spirit of good human beings and for people to come together as friends. A very difficult task under tremendously difficult conditions. All they were trying to do was to make South Africa a better place, a place for one man one vote, and the most important aspect of this was that football became a catalyst to this end.