The Inevitabilities of Soccer and South Africa: ‘More Than Just a Game’ on Robben Island

More than just a game

You might think if you were unjustly sent to prison for any extended period of time, soccer would end up pretty low on your priority list.  But, if the evidence from the history of the infamous Robben Island prison in South Africa is any indication, you’d be wrong.  Though it has taken decades for the story to be widely known, the meetings of the FIFA executive council on Robben Island the day before last week’s World Cup draw were designed partially in tribute to the Makana Football Association—a league created in the 1960’s by and for apartheid era prisoners as one of many small but significant acts that symbolized the evolving spirit of South Africa.  While several media outlets offered the outlines of the story of soccer on Robben Island as a human interest angle on the World Cup draw, there seems to have been less attention devoted specifically to the works that brought that story to light—a book and movie version of the story both titled More Than Just a Game.

Oddly, both the book and the movie have their origins in research done by a historian from the American heartland.  As he describes in the book, Chuck Korr (who has also written historical books about baseball and about West Ham United) stumbled upon archives describing sports on Robben Island when teaching as a visiting professor at the University of the Western Cape in 1993.  Though Korr soon thereafter returned to his regular appointment at the University of Missouri St. Louis, he spent many years returning to South Africa, sifting through the Robben Island Museum archives, and interviewing the men responsible for the Makana Football Association.  While much important work has documented the hardships of Robben Island, and the experiences of famous inmates such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Korr’s angle was different and appreciated—it was the first time former residents met an outsider interested in “anything that happened on the island besides politics and misery.”

Korr recognized that the story was ripe for an audience beyond academic specialists, and brought it to the attention of South African filmmaker Junaid Ahmed.  Ahmed debuted his docu-drama version of More Than Just a Game at the preliminary World Cup draw in 2007, as Korr collaborated with writer Marvin Close to produce the book version published in the UK in 2008. (Though there seem to be some plans to make both the book and movie directly available to US audiences during 2010, for now I had to get my own copies from the UK).  Neither work has been a blockbuster, but the fact that soccer played a small part in Robben Island becoming what some prisoners considered a “university of struggle” has much to offer.

The story

The storyline in both the movie and the book is quite similar, beginning with accounts of several men sent to Robben Island in the early 1960’s for “crimes” associated with anti-apartheid activism.  The book initially focuses on four men—Sedick Isaacs, Lizo Sitoto, Marcus Solomon, and Anthony Suze—though many others play a role, and Mark Shinners joins the other four as one of the main voices in the movie.  Their initial years in the prison were a time of extreme hardship, with the apartheid government reacting harshly everywhere to quell nascent popular uprisings and with the prison guards disinclined to anything other than punishment.  At the start there were no games.  The men themselves, however, slowly but persistently developed ways to organize and entertain themselves, and began to petition the authorities for more.

So why did soccer come to mind?  For reasons familiar to any fan of the game—it offers a shared language that is elegant in its simplicity.  The men on Robben Island began by playing surreptitiously in their cells using improvised bundles as balls.  Over the course of years, however, the prisoners were able to convince the authorities that allowing soccer and games might provide a more humane face to an increasingly critical outside world.  The book in particular offers important insights into the ways that international organizations (such as the International Red Cross) and public pressures (such as the protests against white South African sports teams competing overseas) forced changes that trickled down to the level of prisoner treatment on Robben Island.

Little by little the prisoners created the Makana Football Association, taking full advantage of the precious week-end hours gradually and conditionally allotted by the prison authorities for recreation (the prisoners spent all week working, mostly in rock quarries around the island).  The league took on slightly different manifestations over the years, and not all of Robben Island’s approximately 2000 prisoners took part since different categories of prisoners had different privileges.  But the men managed to create a remarkably comprehensive league involving as many as 200 players at one time with different “clubs” that sponsored teams at A, B, and C levels accommodating varying ability levels.

As the league developed, the men took particular pride in creating a complete structure for the game—they spent months drafting a league constitution, studied FIFA regulations, trained referees, set policies on player transfers, improvised ways to cultivate a reasonable pitch, pooled resources to equip the teams, and worked for years to do all the things that make leagues work.  In fact, the intentionality with which the prisoners attended to FIFA regulations as a way of feeling connected to the world seems to be one reason FIFA has been so invested in the story—they supported the production of the film, and made the Makana Football Association an honorary FIFA member in 2007.  In that light, however, it is interesting to note that in drafting their league constitution the prisoners put a somewhat un-FIFA like emphasis on the rights of the individual players: “It didn’t really make sense for freedom fighters to deny one another the basic liberty of playing for whichever club they wished.”

The pitch at Robben Island Prison

The pitch at Robben Island Prison

Over the course of long, determined years the men created an entity that offered entertainment, purpose, identity, and pride.  But the league also had struggles that are remarkable for their similarity to any league in the world—over time the league suffered protests, controversy, identity conflicts, personal and physical injury, and the inevitability of aging.  In fact, though the prisoners’ determination and resilience in the midst of a broader political struggle for justice is the most important piece of the story, the evolution of the league and the game itself is equally interesting.  In social science terms, the creation of a soccer league in nearly complete isolation from mainstream society made for a sort of natural experiment testing the essence of organized sport: More Than Just a Game offers many lessons about the many ways that organized soccer reveals core human dynamics.  Among the examples I found fascinating:

The necessary evil of referees: In our obsession with the glory of our teams and the abilities of our favorite players, it is easy to forget the referees are more than just objects for derision—in many ways they are the core necessity for competition.  On Robben Island, when the prisoners created a structured league with consistent teams and a competitive table referees immediately became a central concern.  They managed to get a copy of a book on refereeing written by British politician Dennis Howell, and used the lessons therein to recruit and train prisoners to take turns referring league matches.  But the willingness of prisoners to take on that thankless responsibility found little sympathy among the players: “over the twelve months of 1971, the MFA received no fewer than forty seven match reports from clubs complaining about refereeing decisions…there were so many requests for a change of referee by individual clubs that the MFA had to establish a new rule: requests would have to be made at least seven days before a match and contain ‘live instances’ of the referee’s past behavior to justify the request.”  In other words, even when players and referees are comrades in a larger struggle, ‘the referee’s [still] a wanker.’

The inevitable tension between identity and ability: As with so many clubs around the world, the first entrants to the Makana Football Association were organized primarily according to political identities—with, for example, members of the African National Congress (ANC) forming separate teams from members of the Pan-African Congress (PAC).  One of the clubs, however, took a different tactic, focusing on recruiting the best players regardless of affiliation—and that club ended up being most successful on the field.  Over time, however, another team that formed as an all-star collective instigated a controversy that almost destroyed the whole league—the team lost to a lesser team in a tournament on a dubious refereeing decision, and refused to accept the result.  As I suspect any fan of clubs such as Rangers or Celtic might tell you, both blind attention to identity and blind attention to ability complicate the notion of being a team.

The inevitable tension between ideals and winning: Several of the clubs organized in the Makana Football Association intentionally prioritized the beauty of the game as a nod towards the importance of aesthetics even amidst the hardship of prison.  One club took on the motto “score is silver, art is gold” and another is described in the book as focused not just on winning but on winning “with flair…they had few opportunities to express themselves or to experience a sense of achievement.  Football had given them a rare outlet.”   But when immersed in competition the players did not always live up to those ideals: there were “many instances in which normal human temper got in the way of sport’s ideals.”  As the game regularly reminds us, it is one thing to claim “my game is fair play” and quite another to sacrifice a crucial win just because of an abstract principal (yes, I’m piling on FIFA and Thierry Henry).

The inevitability of joy: Though the frustrations and challenges of the Makana Football Association are fascinating for their mix of uniqueness and familiarity, ultimately the league was a source of justifiable pride and joy.  A rabid fan culture evolved along with the teams, with other prisoners (and even a few guards) taking on the role of enthusiastic spectators—though, it is worth noting, without ever devolving into fan violence.  The teams organized surreptitious victory parties in their cells after big matches, and the success of the soccer league led the prisoners to organize other activities including rugby, an idiosyncratic version of the “Olympics,” drama, music, and even tennis.  Robben Island is and should be a symbol of cruelty and deprivation, but the Makana Football Association is also a symbolic reminder that suffering does not negate the capacity for engaging in the broad spectrum of human emotions.  In fact, for me the most powerful moment in the More Than Just a Game movie is when Marcus Solomon describes the end of his prison term: “Ironically for me, the saddest day was when I left the island.”  As tears well in his eyes decades later, Solomon continues simply “because I left so many people.”

The movie and the book

more than just a game dvd

Though both the movie and the book stay relatively close to the same storyline, they offer slightly different perspectives on the experience of soccer on Robben Island.  The movie is labeled as a “docu-drama,” interspersing documentary interviews with five of the former prisoners with dramatic recreations of life in the prison (using South African actors rather than global stars).  The split between interviews and recreations makes for a somewhat odd production where neither seems to get its full due, but I didn’t mind terribly—seeing the actual men offered rich insight into their personalities, while seeing the imagined version of their lives added color to their descriptions.  The movie does necessarily simplify some of the complexities of the story—offering, for example, only brief caricatures of relations between prisoners and guards, along with little feel for the long ebbs and flows of the league’s progression and the broader political trends that surrounded changes on the island.  But the vivid cinematography (including many shots of the cruel beauty of Robben Island and Table Mountain across the choppy sea), and the Vusi Mahlasela soundtrack add emotional resonance to the story once the viewer is engaged.

The book is a quite readable historical account that provides more context and detail than the movie.  At the start the book emphasizes the personal narratives of some of the key men involved with the league, but those fade in favor of stories about the broader scope of the league as a personality of its own.  The real value of the book is in its research and detail; the tangible examples of how the men improvised, confronted conflicts, negotiated power relations, and changed over time accumulate into a useful study of how the grand scope of history is enacted in thousands of minor acts.  In fact, though the book briefly acknowledges the presence of some of Robben Island’s more famous prisoners (including Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma—who played and officiated in the Makana Soccer Association), I appreciated its focus on other successful but less prominent men.  They offer an important reminder that social change is as much about nobility amongst those outside the headlines as it is about the public heroes.

In fact, in my mind the story of More Than Just a Game is most interesting as a provocative take on sport as a site where broader social and human dynamics get negotiated in relatively safe miniatures.  There is the negotiation between individualism and the community where, despite a broad rhetoric suggesting sports is about individual character and ability, the Makana Football Association seems more important as an expression of the ability of diverse and oppressed people to organize and build community for their own good (as the book notes, “any effort to understand the special quality of sport on the island has to start by recognizing the importance of two words that the men use constantly to describe what they did – ‘organization’ and ‘structures’”).  And there is the negotiation between compromise and confrontation, where gaining the power to play requires degrees of conforming to other people’s rules without blind acceptance.  In this light it is fitting that FIFA made a point to pay tribute the Makana Football Association as part of the World Cup draw: who to play matters, but how to play matters more.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at)

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