Robben Island was the infamous prison near Cape Town in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned for many years. For a long time, there were little hope in South Africa, particularly inside the prison. As the state was clamping down hard on the opponents and critics, the number of inmates swelled.
To keep up their spirits, the inmates started playing soccer. At first, they were not permitted to play and they did not even have soccer balls. So they played clandestinely with rolled-up rags. In 1965, they were finally allowed to play, after 4 years of wrangling.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, many of them on Robben Island. He was not allowed to play soccer; he was in solitary confinement much of the time. At first, he was able to watch from his window. Later, even that privilege was taken away. But his spirit was never broken. Soccer was a way for them to survive, and to retain their sanity.
He was released in 1990, continued to work hard for reconciliation, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. It can truly be said that he gave honor to the prize rather the other way around. He was elected as President of South Africa in 1994 and served until 1999.
A movie about soccer at Robben Island, “More than just a game”, is being launched, ahead of the World Cup of Soccer to be hosted by South Africa in 2010.
Those playing soccer in the photo were not South Africans, of course, and it was in Gansu (China) instead of Robben Island (South Africa). But soccer is a beautiful game nevertheless.