Later, it was World Cup broadcasts on a radio set, scratchy transmissions of tournaments continents and oceans away filtering through from the great stadiums of the globe to the desolate rock off the southern tip of Africa.
These were flickers of pleasure for Mandela and other inmates between the grueling rounds of daily labor.
“Football was the only joy to prisoners,” Mandela said of that time, a time measured in decades for some of them and which stretched from the eras of the great Brazil of Pele all the way to Diego Maradona’s Argentina.
After his colossal political life ended, soccer also gave Mandela a final challenge, a final victory and a final wave goodbye.
“I feel like a young man of 15,” Mandela, who was actually 85, said in Switzerland in 2004 after South Africa had finally won the right to host the World Cup.
He was able to say farewell to his country, and it to him, at the 2010 final on the outskirts of Soweto, his last public appearance.
Soccer also presented Mandela with a hero. Who could possibly be Nelson Mandela’s hero? It was Lucas Radebe, the former South Africa national team captain and defender whom Mandela nicknamed “Big Tree.”
“This is my hero,” Mandela said, emphasizing the “this” while standing next to the player who surely will never rank among soccer’s lasting greats, but who had loyalty, dedication and determination.
“I felt I could burst with pride,” the former Leeds player said, recounting the moment in a newspaper interview, no longer quite as speechless as he was at the time. “I was thinking: Me? A hero to him?”
In truth, boxing was Mandela’s first love. Rugby was a whirlwind romance later in his life. But soccer stayed with him throughout.
As for those soccer players of Robben Island, theirs is a story in stark contrast to the extravagances and riches now commonplace at the game’s highest levels.
The inmates’ field was a barren open space surrounded by concrete walls. The nets were made of discarded fishing ropes, prisoners say, collected from the island’s shores. Still, they considered it their Wembley. Their ball was rolled up pieces of paper stuffed into a sack, the league trophy carved from wood by a prisoner.
Inmates had spent years asking authorities every week for permission to play soccer. The request was repeatedly denied and sometimes met with solitary confinement, where food was taken away. Yet still they wanted to play, and eventually they got their wish.
But Mandela and the other anti-apartheid leaders weren’t allowed to take part for fear they would influence the prison population. The jailers also denied him the pleasure of watching others play. They erected a concrete wall to block Mandela’s view from his cell in the isolated block, a prison within a prison. They couldn’t, however, prevent the occasional joyous exclamations from the games drifting over.
In 2007, FIFA conferred honorary status on the Makana Football Association that was formed by Robben Island inmates in the 1960s and under which they played their games. The prisoners say they adhered strictly to the rules of international soccer after a book of FIFA’s regulations was found in the prison library. Every article was copied by hand onto new pages that could be taken away.
Today, the outline of Cape Town’s 2010 World Cup stadium can just about be seen from the prison’s once sandy field, now overgrown with shrubs. Ultimately, and with Mandela’s help, the World Cup came within a few miles of Robben Island.
Former prisoner and soccer player Lizo Gladwell Sitoto recalled that for a television documentary as South Africa prepared to host the world’s biggest tournament.
“If maybe one had those godly powers, we could say to the graves, ‘Get all those ex-islanders out of the graves and let them see what is happening,’” he said.
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