Chances are, if you were one of the 700 million people who watched the 2010 World Cup, you likely heard mention of the soccer games that prisoners on Robben Island played during the decades of apartheid rule. The stories of these soccer matches on the barren island, played by political prisoners sentenced to years of hard labor, were cast as evidence of the sport’s power to lift the human spirit, to bring inspiration in the midst of oppression.
But the matches on Robben Island were much more than a diversion from the tedium and harshness of prison life. Hundreds of inmates participated in creating a fully organized league, the Makana Football Association, with multiple divisions, clubs governed by constitutions and officers, fixtures and tables, and league administrators. The workings of the association produced hundreds of pages of documents that ended up in 1993, by chance, in the hands of American sports historian Chuck Korr. Drawing from these boxes of materials and from interviews with the men who played on Robben Island, Korr produced a complete and moving account of soccer in apartheid’s most notorious prison. This book, which he co-wrote with British writer Marvin Close, is More Than Just a Game—Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Greatest Soccer Story Ever Told (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2008).
Korr brings to this story the perspective of an experienced historian of sports. And as he explains in the interview, never has he encountered such dedication to the ideals of sports as he discovered in researching the book. It is a story based on a sport, he explains, but it is also about the struggle for dignity and the conveying of values. The book reflects the conviction, as one of Korr’s subjects explained it, that “sports is much too important to be just fun.”