Football ‘more than just a game’

26 November 2007

Robben Island is a notorious symbol of South Africa’s apartheid regime: a prison with a history of violently oppressing political dissidents.

The infamous jail was, however, the setting for an improbable triumph of the human spirit, when five political prisoners joined to form the Makana Football Association and organise a soccer league on the island.

More Than Just A Game, a new film telling the story of the Makana Football Association and its five founders, had its world premier in Durban on Friday as part of the official programme for the 2010 Fifa World Cup preliminary draw.

Produced by Anant Singh and Helena Spring, directed by Junaid Ahmed and starring Presley Chweneyagae from the Oscar award-winning Tsotsi, the film tells the story of how political activists who were unjustly imprisoned on Robben Island in the 1960s rose above their incarceration through the creation of a football league.

For years, political prisoners had to fight for the right to play football on the island, with men secretly playing the game in their cells with balls made of pieces of paper, cardboard and rags held together with string.

The island’s authorities finally gave in, granting inmates the right to play football in 1965. The prisoners then built their own goals and would swap their drab prison garb and play in the colours of their teams on Saturdays. The Makana FA was formed in 1966.

“They all banded together and tried to survive, enduring some of the harshest conditions known to man, using football as a means to build moral and mutual respect,” said producer Anant Singh.

However, the island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was among a small group, including Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Katrada, who were barred from taking part in or even watching the prison football league.

“For almost two decades these men were not allowed to witness a single soccer match that took place only metres from them,” said the film’s director, Junaid Ahmed.

Ahmed described More than just a game as a “remarkable telling of our history … It uncovers layers of history that I never knew of before, and it shows the great sacrifices people made for our freedom.”

In a ceremony held on Robben Island in July 2007, the Makana Football Association was made an honorary associate member of Fifa.

Speaking at the time, Fifa representative Jerome Champagne said More Than Just A Game had a universal message. “It shows the role football played in the history of this country and it shows what football can achieve – dignity and equality. It also highlights the value of the human spirit.

“Fifa is proud, happy and humbled to be part of this production that will have global appeal,” Champagne said.

The film premiere was be attended by the original five Robben Islanders on whom the film is based, namely Mark Shinners, Anthony Suze, Lizo Sitoto, Sedick Isaacs and Marcus Solomon, as well as the actors that play them: Presley Chweneyagae, Wright Ngubeni, Az Abrahams, Tshepo Maseko and Merlin Balie.

Also in attendance were soccer legends Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer, among others, as well as representatives of more than 100 football associations and a large contingent of international media.

The film will be released at more than 50 screens nationally in South Africa through United International Pictures (South Africa) in December 2007.

SAinfo reporter

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