The tiny barren island, seven kilometres off the Cape Town coast, is famous for being home to South African leader Nelson Mandela and current President Jacob Zuma during the apartheid years. But it is football that became the lifeline for inmates during their stay here.
It all began in 1963 when prisoners insisted on playing football. They stuck to their demand for three years before the jail authorities relented and allowed them to play football in 1965.
A football league named Makana Football Association, named after a prophet banished to the island in 1819, was finally formed in 1966 and it adhered strictly to FIFA’s rules. In July 2007, FIFA recognised Makana Football Association as its first honorary member association. However, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Katrada, the most prominent political leaders at that time, were barred from taking part in or even watching the prison football league. Zuma though got to be a referee and also played as a defender.
In their bid to highlight the important role that football played on Robben Island, FIFA took a historical step last year by organising its executive committee meeting on the island. Such is the craze to visit the island that all trips are booked till the end of the World Cup. A group of Dutch fans were mesmerised after seeing the prisoners’ cells and sandy football ground, where the prisoners played during their trip to the island.
“When you walk through the gate and you know everything that happened there, that makes you feel how those men had paid the price for today’s democracy. It was great to see that. It was football that kept them in good spirits,” said Mark de Villiers, a Dutch fan.