The first soccer games in the brutal world of Robben Island were makeshift and perilous affairs. A couple of shirts were bundled together and bound in the shape of a ball, and the prisoners secretly played five-a-side matches in their cells, with a lookout posted to watch for guards.
For three years the prisoners made weekly requests to play soccer outside. Each time they asked, they were punished with cuts in their food rations. When the apartheid authorities finally gave in, the prisoners cobbled together their soccer nets from scrap wood and old fishing nets that had washed ashore.
From their first jail-cell matches in 1963, the prisoners created a soccer league so organized and meticulous that it became a training ground for the free South Africa that emerged after the collapse of apartheid.
The graduates of that soccer league became the leaders of today's South Africa: from the country's president, Jacob Zuma (once the tough and wily captain of a prison team called the Rangers) to a host of cabinet ministers, party leaders, a senior judge, a deputy president and even the drafters of the South African constitution. It was soccer, they say, that kept them sane in the gruelling prison conditions and prepared them for running a nation.
After decades of obscurity, the prison soccer league will be honoured today by the International Federation of Association Football, known by its French acronym FIFA, the governing body of international soccer. In an unprecedented move, just six months before South Africa stages the World Cup, the FIFA executive committee will travel by ferry to Robben Island to hold its year-end meeting on the site of the former prison. And they will invite a group of ex-prisoners to show where they played the games that shaped the country.
"It's a moment of great joy for us," said Mark Shinners, one of the former Robben Island prisoners who will be honoured today.
"It's a dream we always had, even when it seemed so unrealistic. When we were in jail, we always dreamed of being part of FIFA, and now suddenly it has come true."
Shinners, an anti-apartheid activist who was first jailed on Robben Island in 1963 at 17, served more than two decades of imprisonment on the island. As one of the best soccer players in the prison, he helped coach the others - and also taught English to Zuma in their jailhouse classes. Later he helped to draft South Africa's post-apartheid constitution as a representative of the Pan African Congress.
The Saturday soccer matches were crucial in overcoming the political differences among the prisoners, and even between the prisoners and their guards, Shinners said.
"The moment we started playing soccer, the warders got drawn into it," he said. "They came to identify with our teams. In the big matches, they'd give up their lunch breaks to give us more time. We managed to reach out to them, so they could see that we were fighting for human justice. Soccer was much more universal and human than anything we could have imagined."
By 1969, the prisoners had formed the Makana Football Association, named after a Xhosa warrior and anti-colonialist leader who had been exiled to Robben Island by the British military in the 19th century. After months of discussion, the prisoners drafted a detailed constitution for their league, with pages of formal rules, including a strict adherence to FIFA's regulations.
Through the league, the prisoners learned to seek consensus and compromise - skills that became crucial in the 1990s when they avoided a bloodbath in the final days of apartheid.
"It was the concept of fair play," Shinners said. "It helped us to understand that you don't always win. Building a society is a matter of give and take, and understanding the other side. It became a cornerstone for the future."
Lizo Sitoto, goalkeeper for one of the best teams on Robben Island in the 1960s, said the soccer league was crucial to the survival of the anti-apartheid leaders who were jailed on the island.
"It strengthened us," he said. "Robben Island was meant to break us, but everything changed when we had football. If they thought they were punishing us by putting us on Robben Island, it became just the opposite. And it showed that we were capable of organizing anything."
The honour from FIFA this week is "a wonderful thing" because it recognizes the rank and file of the Robben Island prisoners, not just famous leaders such as Nelson Mandela, he said. "We thought that people had forgotten us. It means a lot that we're being remembered."
Chuck Korr, a U.S. scholar and sports historian, learned of the Robben Island soccer league when a colleague in South Africa showed him 63 cardboard boxes of meticulous records that the prisoners had kept. The league was "an essential part of the struggle against apartheid," Korr said. "Just as important as having it was the struggle to get it. It was something that they wrung out of the authorities."
Korr is co-author of a book about the league, More Than Just a Game, which will be published in North America next spring. The prisoners want their experiences on Robben Island to be recognized as more than just "politics and misery," he said. "This isn't a story about brutality, it's a story about accomplishment. It's only peripherally a soccer story - it's about striving and dignity."