Soccer helped prisoners deal with horrors of Robben Island

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — Four miles off the coast of Cape Town, within view of Table Mountain but out of earshot of vuvuzelas and World Cup festivities, sits Robben Island, a former leper colony and maximum-security prison best known as the place civil rights leader Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years along with other political prisoners during the apartheid era.

Less well-known is the fact that in that prison, behind the gray walls and barbed wire, was a highly organized competitive soccer league that gave hope, strength and dignity to the prisoners. It offered an escape from the harsh daily existence, which included beatings, dehumanizing body cavity searches, hard labor crushing rocks in a quarry, and sometimes, ruthless guards urinating on prisoners.

At its height, from the late 1960s through the 1980s, the Makana Football Association (named after a Xhosa warrior who had fought British colonialism and tried to escape the island in 1820) had nine clubs, representing all the cell blocks. Among the club names were the Rangers, Gunners, Hotspurs, Wanderers, Dynamo, Black Eagles, and Bucks.

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