Back on Robben Island — the men who changed the game

December 3, 2009

The year 1964 was a highly significant one in the fight against Apartheid: Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and FIFA suspended South Africa from football because of the legalised racist policies of its Government.

If anyone had suggested then that one day FIFA’s Executive Committee would meet on the outcrop off the coast of Cape Town on the eve of the draw for South Africa’s World Cup, they would have been derided as a fantasist.

But that is exactly what happened on Thursday. FIFA president Sepp Blatter and the 24 most important men in world soccer, plus around 250 members of the media and other helpers, spent a day on the island where Mandela, and current South African President Jacob Zuma were incarcerated for years of their lives.

Thousands of opponents of the Apartheid regime were imprisoned on the island, but for FIFA, and for the world at large, Robben Island is not just a sombre place with a dreadful past, but it is also a symbol of hope.

It is where oppressed and imprisoned men turned to football as a way of regaining their dignity and humanity which the Apartheid regime was determined to deprive them of.

While Blatter and FIFA’s decision-makers were in session, the world’s press were introduced to other men who all did time on Robben Island, and who, in 1967, literally set the ball rolling which eventually gathered enough momentum to bring the World Cup to South Africa — and FIFA to Robben Island.

In 1967, after years of refusal by the authorities, the prisoners were allowed to play football — but they did more than that. Anthony Suze, Lizo Sitoto, Mark Shinners and Sedick Isaacs, who all returned to the former prison on Thursday, formed themselves into a football association, named after an African chief who had also been imprisoned on Robben Island by the British — the Makana Football Association.

Sticking rigidly to FIFA rules, a copy of which was one of the few items in the meagre prison library, the Makana FA ran organised football on the island until it was finally, and happily, disbanded in the early 1990s by Tokyo Sexwale, a former prisoner on the island too and now a minister in Zuma’s government.

Zuma himself was a prisoner on the island, and was one of the Makana FA’s referees. On Thursday FIFA president Blatter “promoted” Zuma to be an honorary FIFA referee.

Blatter was speaking from a top table erected in the former Prison Hall — and the significance was lost on no-one. Sexwale gave a passionate address to the media while Suze recalled their days of imprisonment.

A highly-acclaimed book called More Than Just A Game tells the story of football against Apartheid, and the former prisoners who returned there on Thursday, are living proof that good can overcome evil.

The Makana FA, which now no longer exists, was given honorary membership of FIFA in 2007. It may have passed into history along with the brutal regime that created such hardship on Robben Island, but its legacy lives on and Friday’s World Cup draw in Cape Town, just seven kilometres across Table Bay, proves, as Sexwale said, that the power of the human spirit can conquer all.

It’s a long journey from FIFA House in Zurich to the bleak desolation of Robben Island in more ways than one, but its a journey that football has embraced to its everlasting credit.

PHOTO: Journalists are seen in front of goal posts on Robben Island, December 3, 2009. The winners of next year’s World Cup final in South Africa will collect $30 million in prize money, FIFA said on Thursday after their Executive Committee meeting on Robben Island. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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