Today in South Africa, leaders from across the globe will pay their last respects to the anti-apartheid icon and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
In Robben Island, a South African prison, newspapers were forbidden and reading materials censored. One of the few books allowed in the prison library were the official FIFA rules for a little game we call soccer. In the mid 1960s, a group of prisoners set up the Makana Football Association. The name ‘Makana’ came from the name of a 19th century Xhosa warrior-prophet who himself was a prisoner on Robben Island.
Current South African President Jacob Zuma was a defender for a team in the league and would later become a referee.
It wasn’t easy to get the league started, as a group would go and ask the warden for permission to play, only to be promptly punished by the authorities every week. In 1966, just as the fathers of the game, England, were lifting the biggest trophy in the game, the South African prisoners on Robben Island were celebrating their own small soccer success.
The Bucks–Rangers matchup was the first game allowed to be played in the prison by prisoners. That game would be labeled as ‘Soccer vs. Apartheid’, and it was seen as a way for prisoners to maintain their sanity while having something to look forward to. It kept them mentally active for whatever South Africa they would find on the other side of those prison walls.
Even when the games were played, it wasn’t all easy. Wardens would come in who didn’t agree with the prisoners playing games and enjoying themselves, and would confiscate trophies or cancel matches without trophies. Some of the newer prisoners were also reluctant as they saw it as the old guard providing entertainment of the ‘white oppressors’.
Although the soccer games inside the prison were played strictly under FIFA regulations, South Africa was banned from taking part in FIFA games outside prison walls due to the political climate of the country.
In fact, from 1976 until their re-introduction in 1992, South Africa was a pariah in the sporting world, a decision make with more than a little bit of influence from the killing of students in Soweto, the first of which was reported to be a 13-year-old boy by the name of Hector Pieterson who actually would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year.
Mandela became President in 1994, and his country was hosting and then lifting the Rugby World Cup trophy a year later. Again, Mandela knew that sport could be something to bring a country together and after years of the Apartheid system, the country certainly needed something everyone could get behind. When he congratulated the white Captain, both wearing Springbok jerseys, the world saw a kind of unity not seen in South Africa in living memory.
If you get the chance, watch the movie ‘Invictus’ with Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain Francois Pienaar, which is based on these events. Incidentally, the name came from a poem by English poet William Henley, which was Mandela’s favorite while in Robben Island and a source of comfort and strength.
The African Cup of Nations was held in the country a year later and again, they won that trophy also. Ex-Bolton and Charlton player Mark Fish was in that side, but the stars were John Moshoeu (or ‘Shoe’ as the crowd addressed him) and Mark Williams, ex-Wolverhampton player, the latter of the two scoring both goals to secure the trophy’s final destination.
More recently, South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup and in doing so, became the first African Nation to host the prestigious tournament. The hosts were eliminated at the Group stage, but the party atmosphere continued and the vuvuzelas could be heard all the way to the Final and beyond.
Mandela had long since left office when the event took place, but was instrumental in the securing of the tournament six years earlier. Furing the World Cup was never far from the public scene and never out of the public mind. A day before the draw for the very next World Cup was made Mandela passed away, extinguishing one of the worlds greatest lights who knew that sport was more than a game and could be his political ally.