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Robben Island reminds of liberating power of soccer

By Alexandra Hudson

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa (Reuters) - A small but much-prized soccer trophy on display in a cell of Robben Island prison is a reminder of how football touched the lives of the activists locked up there by the apartheid regime.

Political prisoners at the notorious jail where former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned campaigned for years for the right to play soccer, later forming clubs, a league and even a referees association as inmates embraced the game with joy.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma and Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale are among those to have played during their incarceration on the island, a small, inhospitable patch of land 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) off the coast of Cape Town.

"Soccer was our lives then, a high point at the end of the week," said Sedick Isaacs, a founding member of the prisoners' Makana Football Association, named after a Xhosa ethnic group leader held captive on the island by the British a century before.

Three years ago, FIFA awarded honorary membership to the Makana FA, which throughout its existence strictly adhered to the international body's rules, and kept meticulous records.

The history of Makana FA bears testament to the resilience and spirit of Robben Island's anti-apartheid activists amid the inhumane conditions of the prison, and their struggle to keep their dignity through organizing and playing football.

"Amongst ourselves there was a whole debate: 'must we ask them to play soccer, when we don't have proper food? Should we first get better food and then play'," said former prisoner Marcus Solomon sentenced to 10 years on the island.

But the prisoners did ask for soccer first, even though their poor diet meant they were so weak they were barely able to play. At first they were punished for their request, but with the intervention of the Red Cross, football was allowed.

BALL OF RAGS

Inmates went from kicking an improvised soccer ball of rags around their cells to playing outside for thirty minutes each Saturday, a huge step forward in their eyes. Prisoners came to watch and strong loyalties to the clubs of the prison arose.

Goals were made from drift wood and scraps of fishing net and eventually the players were able to order kits. The first game was played in December 1967. Trophies were made for the league competition and later for a knock-out cup competition.

Prisoners looked forward to the matches for days as they worked backbreaking 10 hours shifts in the quarry and endured the brutality of the guards. Football gave them a sense of freedom and focus, and forged a strong sense of community.

Mandela, who was jailed at Robben Island from 1964-1982 was forbidden from participating. At one point, once the prison authorities realized that he and others in the isolation block could see the matches, they built a wall to block the view.

The prison, now a museum, has become a much-visited tourist site, and many fans visiting Cape Town have taken the 30-minute boat trip to the island.

"It makes me happy that people visiting the country for the World Cup are taking the time to come out here," said Jama Mbatyoti, who now leads visitors around the prison where he served a five year sentence for anti-apartheid activities.

"The World Cup is a very special event and it is a big thing for me. But it is particularly important to our former president Mandela."

(Editing by Michael Holden)

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