More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: the Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told

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Timed perfectly for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the true story of how political prisoners under apartheid found hope and dignity through soccer

In the hell that was Robben Island, inmates united courageously in an act of protest. Beginning in 1964, they requested the right to play soccer during their exercise periods. Denied repeatedly, they risked beatings and food deprivation by repeating their request for three years. Finally granted this right, the prisoners banded together to form a multi-tiered, pro-level league that ran for more than two decades and served as an impassioned symbol of resistance against apartheid. Former Robben Island inmate Nelson Mandela noted in the documentary FIFA: 90 Minutes for Mandela, “Soccer is more than just a game…. The energy, passion, and dedication this game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
More Than Just a Game tells the little-known story of how soccer transformed the lives of political prisoners on Robben Island, an isolated hell-on-earth off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa that housed black inmates during the apartheid era. Beginning in 1964, prisoners subjected to routine beatings and starvation united in an extreme act of courage, demanding the right to play soccer during exercise periods. The prisoners were eventually allowed to form a multi-tiered, pro-level league that operated for more than two decades. Academic historian Korr and scriptwriter Close resurrect this overlooked history with a vivid narrative no doubt aided by the 2007 docudrama of the same name. Brutal depictions of prison life make for compelling, at times uncomfortable reading, and the challenges faced by the players’ association are presented in great detail, thanks to meticulous records kept by prisoners (Robben Island’s most famous inmate, Nelson Mandela, barely plays a role). Akin to a DVD’s bonus feature, a final chapter titled “The Story Behind More Than Just A Game” explains how Korr came upon what he rightly calls “the most important soccer story ever told.” Photos. (May)
From the Publisher
“The story of an obscure soccer league that liberated a nation: the Makana Football Association played all its games behind closed — and locked — doors on South Africa’s Robben Island. An incredible story that chronicles how soccer helped political prisoners in their triumph of the human spirit over the Apartheid system.”—New York Times


"That this conflict between generations— one more in the tangled collection of conflicts stemming from party affiliation, class, and the rage and resentments great and small built into any system wherein one race is persecuted by another— could be overcome to the benefit of most of those concerned is testimony to the will, imagination, and patience of all the prisoners involved. That soccer played any part at all in the process may be justification for the contention that this chronicle is ‘the most important soccer story ever told.’”—The Boston Globe


“A truly inspiring story...Highly recommended for all readers, whether they are soccer fans or not.”—Library Journal (starred review)


“Well worth reading, even by those who don’t know a thing about soccer.”—Booklist


“In Korr and Close’s book, we see how a successful soccer league was a victory not just for prisoners, but for the whole of humanity.”—Maclean's

 “This story adds a compelling dimension to our understanding of the struggle against apartheid.”—Desmond M Tutu

 “For the men of Robben Island prison, soccer was more than a game.  This story of the victims of political oppression, and how they found dignity and hope through sport, stands as a remarkable testament to the human spirit.—Bob Costas

“In more than forty years of covering sports at the New York Times and for CBS and PBS, I have never seen a story that has so vividly brought together the nature of games, politics and the human spirit.”—Robert Lipsyte


“Soccer is more than just a game. Soccer can create hope where there was once despair. I remember how we, the prisoners on Robben Island, played soccer to keep our spirits high during the dark days of this country. The energy, passion, and dedication this game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in.”—Nelson Mandela, from the film FIFA: 90 Minutes for Mandela


“A fascinating account of the immense importance of the sport.”—The Guardian (UK)

Library Journal
As the world of soccer prepares to descend on South Africa [see "Sporty South Africa," LJ 3/1/10], Korr (history, emeritus, Univ. of Missouri, St. Louis) and British scriptwriter Close remind us of what the nation represented not so long ago. Set at the height of South Africa's apartheid system of legalized racism, this is the remarkable story of how soccer unified prisoners on Robben Island, a two-square-mile island just seven miles from Cape Town, which after 1960 was home to thousands of political and criminal prisoners, including, most famously, Nelson Mandela. In a truly inspiring story, the Robben Island prisoners struggled against all odds, and in spite of a prison administration more determined to humiliate and dehumanize than rehabilitate inmates, to organize an eight-club football (soccer) league that followed FIFA rules, with over 1000 prisoners playing. Through interviews and use of prisoners' own sources, the authors make a unique contribution to soccer and the history of a nation's abuse of an entire ethnic group. Korr was historical consultant and coproducer of a docudrama of the same title in 2007 (not yet seen in the States). VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers, whether they are soccer fans or not, and all public and academic libraries.—Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312596170
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

CHUCK KORR is professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It and West Ham United. He has been published in the New York Times and has appeared on ESPN and CNN.


MARVIN CLOSE is a scriptwriter in the United Kingdom.

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