Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 11th 2013 Contents JOHANNESBURG---The mere sounds
of a football game brightened Nel-
son Mandela in his darkest, most
First, it was the noise that carried across
a gray, wind-swept prison yard on Robben
Island, his brutal apartheid-era jail. The noise
of every cheer and every kick from his fellow
inmates that found a way from their makeshift
field, over the concrete walls and through the
barbed wire to Mandela s tiny cell helped sus-
Later, it was World Cup broadcasts on a
radio set, scratchy transmissions of tourna-
ments continents and oceans away filtering
through from the great stadiums of the globe
to the desolate rock off the southern tip of
They were flickers of pleasure for Mandela
and other inmates in between the grueling
daily hard labour.
"Football was the only joy to prisoners,"
Mandela said of that time, a time measured
in decades for some of them and which
stretched from the eras of the great Brazil of
Pele all the way to Diego Maradona s Argenti-
na.After his colossal political life came to an
end, football also gave Mandela a final chal-
lenge, a final victory, and the chance for a
final wave goodbye.
"I feel like a young man of 15," Mandela,
who was actually 85, said in Switzerland in
2004 after South Africa had finally won the
right to host the World Cup.
He was able to say farewell to his country,
and it to him, at the 2010 final on the outskirts
of Soweto, his very last public appearance.
The sport should be very proud that it was
able to give all this to Mandela, a man who
gave so much.
Football even presented Mandela with a
hero. It s an amazing thought: Nelson Man-
dela s hero. Who could possibly live up to
that sky-high mark? It was Lucas Radebe,
the former South Africa national team captain
and defender who Mandela nicknamed "Big
"This is my hero," Mandela said, empha-
sising the "this" while standing next to the
player who will never be considered among
football s lasting greats, but who had loyalty,
dedication and determination.
"I felt I could burst with pride," the former
Leeds player said, recounting the moment in
a newspaper interview, no longer quite as
speechless as he was at the time. "I was think-
ing: Me? A hero to him?"
In truth, boxing was Mandela s first love.
Rugby was a whirlwind romance later in his
life. But football---and here we re talking the
very basic and good qualities of football---
stayed with him throughout.
And as for those footballers of Robben
Island, theirs is a story that has been told
before, but should be told over and over and
over again to a game now so accustomed to
extravagance and riches, and which must reg-
ularly be reminded of its real value and why
it resonated in the way it did with someone
On the island, the inmates football field
was a barren open space surrounded by those
grinding concrete walls. The nets were made
out of discarded fishing ropes, prisoners say,
collected from the shores around the island.
They still considered it their "Wembley." Their
ball was rolled up pieces of paper stuffed into
a sack, the league trophy carved out of wood
by a creative prisoner.
Inmates had spent years asking the
apartheid authorities every week for permis-
sion to play football. It was denied and denied,
and the request sometimes met with solitary
confinement where food was taken away. The
players of Robben Island weren t rewarded
with millions to play football, they were pun-
ished for it.
And still they wanted to play. Still they
asked for football. Eventually they won, it
But Mandela and the other anti-apartheid
leaders weren t allowed to take part for fear
they would influence the main prison pop-
ulation. The jailers also took away the pleasing
sight of his comrades playing by putting up
a concrete wall to block Mandela s view from
his cell in the isolated block, a prison within
a prison. They couldn t, however, prevent the
occasional joyous exclamations from the games
In 2007, Fifa conferred honorary status on
the Makana Football Association that was
formed by Robben Island inmates in the 1960s
and under which they played their games.
The prisoners say they adhered strictly to the
rules of international football after a book of
ifa s regulations was found in the prison library
and every article was copied by hand onto
new pages that could be taken away.
Today you can just about see the outline
of Cape Town s 2010 World Cup stadium
from the prison s once sandy field, now over-
grown with shrubs. Ultimately and with Man-
dela s help, the world s biggest tournament
came to within a few short kilometers (miles)
of Robben Island. Just too late for some.
"If maybe one had those godly powers, we
could say to the graves, Get all those ex-
islanders out of the graves and let them see
what is happening, " former prisoner and
footballer Lizo Gladwell Sitoto said for a tel-
evision documentary as the new South Africa
wondrously prepared to host the world s
And how thankful we all should be that
we still had Nelson Mandela to feel that World
Cup up close. (AP)
• Twitter: @GuardianTT • Web: guardian.co.tt
In this May 15, 2004 file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela lifts the
World Cup trophy in Zurich, Switzerland, after Fifa's executive committee announced that
South Africa would host the 2010 Fifa World Cup soccer tournament. Mandela was pivotal in
helping the country win the right to host the tournament. He died last Thursday at age 95. AP
Bradley Wiggins has been
knighted by Queen Elizabeth
II at a ceremony at Bucking-
ham Palace that left last
year s Tour de France and
Olympic champion "shak-
ing" and "uncomfortable."
Wiggins was honoured for
services to cycling after win-
ning seven Olympic medals
and becoming the first Briton
to win the Tour---the sport s
The 33-year-old Wiggins
says yesterday "I m glad it s
over" because "I ve won a
bike race, you know, and I
feel a little bit inferior to
Sir Bradley, as he is now
known, was awarded the
knighthood in the queen s
New Year s honours list.
Wiggins left 'shaking' after being knighted
What football gave
to Nelson Mandela
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