Ex-prisoners recall soccer on Robben Island

Weeds are about the only thing remaining amid the sandy bumps of the soccer field that served the prisoners on the infamous island where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were held.

But memories of the inmates’ soccer skills still survive.

“We would do all the tricks,” Thulani Mabaso remembered. By the early 1990s, with the end of apartheid drawing closer, even the guards were swayed. “They loved us.”

Now, the field remains surrounded by barbed wire, but Mabaso is part of the staff at the Robben Island national monument, welcoming visitors 18 years after his early release and the closure of the maximum security prison.

From the practice field, across the ocean where dolphins, seals and whales frolic, prisoner Mabaso always had a view of Table Mountain and Cape Town where Friday’s World Cup draw will be held.

His country hosting the world’s biggest single-sport event is another milestone in a tumultuous life.

“This morning on the boat, I just cried when I was coming over here – to have this thing happen in my lifetime,” he said.

He is not alone in witnessing such change.

Instead of refereeing games on the Robben Island field close to his tiny cell, South African President Jacob Zuma will be welcoming the sport’s greatest stars at the International Convention Center.

Mabaso’s heart did not only beat for the African National Congress and the struggle to free blacks and coloreds – those were specific legal terms under apartheid – from white oppression. His love for soccer was strong, too.

He belonged to the ANC’s military wing, not an ideal mix with playing at the top level in South Africa. In 1982, he said he set up two limpet mines and destroyed one of the state’s intelligence buildings in Johannesburg. Those activities ended his soccer ambitions.

“Big teams were interested in taking me, but I was too much involved in the struggle,” he said.

With an 18-year prison sentence, he was sent to Robben Island in 1984, where the game started to take on an even bigger meaning. While the prison was set up to break the spirit, soccer was there to restore it.

“Here on the island, it was a great relief. It was unifying us and it kept our mind active,” Mabaso said.

It had not always been the case. The players once had to set up games secretly with balls held together with rags and paper. The prison did not allow games until 1965.

“We were not allowed to play any sports here,” said Tokyo Sexwale, an inmate and now a member of the FIFA Fair Play Committee. “But at the end the spirit of survival prevailed.”

Mandela was among a few who was barred by the prison authorities from taking part.

A special Makana Football League, named after one of the first political prisoners, was set up among the inmates to organize league play among a half-dozen teams. By the time Mabaso arrived, competition was fierce.

“Saturday at 9 a.m. the big game starts. The field is filled with prisoners,” Mabaso recalled. “If your team loses, it is not good.”

He played in central defense for the Runners team.

“Yeah, I was the best No. 5. I also got goals, I used to score.”

Apart from politics, soccer was a common thread in their monotonous daily lives on the island, even on Sunday when no sports were allowed for religious reasons.

“We would be reviewing what we did on Saturdays,” he said.

The prisoners made sure they kept up with soccer outside their isolated island, too.

“I even remember the day when Maradona scored with his hand,” Mabaso chucked, reminiscing about the 1986 World Cup when Diego Maradona led Argentina past England in the quarterfinals with his famous “Hand of God” goal.

“There were many Maradonas here,” he said about some of the more questionable tactics some players on Robben Island used. Still, they played by FIFA rules.

Most of the news from around the world came from letters and magazines that were smuggled into the prison. Another highlight was the coming of age of African soccer at the 1990 World Cup when Cameroon beat Argentina 1-0 in the opening game.

“The excitement was there,” he said, howling with laughter.

One year later, he was among the last batch of political prisoners released from the island. Two years ago, the island’s Makana Football Association was made an honorary FIFA member.

However, competing at the World Cup is beyond the players’ aging bones and muscles.

“MFA is not allowed to be part of the draw. If we were, we would draw New Zealand,” added Sexwale in reference to the lowest-ranked team in the competition.