The promotion on the front cover boasts, The most important football story ever told. Not only was I mesmerised by this story from the very start, but by the story's end I seriously began to wonder if this book was a genuine contender for the title. The story is amazing enough in itself. The South African prisoners on Robben Island, a place made famous by Nelson Mandela's thirty year imprisonment, organise firstly a football league and later an entire prison Olympics in the face of the most severe brutality meted out by the Apartheid prison authorities.

 

With the majority of prisoners being political prisoners, the aim was to keep up morale and train the men both physically and mentally for the ongoing struggle once they were released. The fact that many of the prisoners went on to play leading roles both in the final defeat of apartheid and in the governance of the newly liberated South Africa is testimony to the tactics and courage of the imprisoned freedom fighters. The detail that is collated by the authors over a fifteen year period via interviews and documentation enables them to recreate this extraordinary story as if they had been there themselves. The debates, the passions and the tactical planning by the leading organisers is laid out with such painstaking clarity that the whole anti apartheid era struggles come hurtling back into view. All this is enough to allow the publishers/authors to make claim to this being the most important football story ever. But there is another dimension to this book that serves to elevate it above all others; the interweaving of the international political situation with the football story on Robben Island. On the one hand Korr and Close have produced a story specific to one place at one time but on the other hand they have produced a piece of political history that has reverberations to this day. Their chronicling of the appalling attitudes of many of the sporting governing bodies and the World's governments themselves is brought back into the spotlight and many of these organisations and their leading individuals do not come out smelling of roses. The key events outlined centre around the proposed MCC tour of South Africa and the actual South African rugby tour of Britain. But before recalling those dramatic events Korr and Close are particular in highlighting FIFA's own dire record in the early days of the apartheid regime. They recount, In 1961 FIFA had imposed a ban on South Africa's whites-only national team playing competitive or friendly games against other countries. However, its then president, the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, a die-hard colonialist, had campaigned long and hard against what he described as political interference. He was content to ignore the fact that the South African government's racial policies were a political decision that ensured that only whites could participate in international football at the highest level. In 1963 the world ban was withdrawn based largely on Sir Stanley's assessment that South Africa's coloured footballers are happy with the relations that have been established. P54 This was not to be FIFA's finest hour but to their credit the ban was reinstated the following year. The cricketing crisis for the Apartheid regime began when the MCC refused to select the inform South African born UK resident, Basil d'Oliveira for the tour of South Africa. It seems the MCC had not wanted to offend their racist hosts. A national outcry erupted in England and after intervention by the Minister of Sport, Denis Howell, the MCC did a U-turn and included d'Oliveira in the team. The Apartheid authorities were incensed and declared that the England team was no longer welcome. The English cricketing authorities, who had now been humiliated both at home and internationally, were forced to call off the tour. British sport had barely recovered from their cricketing disgrace when our enlighten Ed sporting bodies were confronted with the fall out from an all white South African rugby tour of the UK. Every match of the tour was met with mass demonstrations both on and off the field and although the tour limped on, it was clear that racist South Africa would never again be allowed to peacefully compete in international sport. Korr and Close explain; Other international rugby players were quickly getting the message that it was impossible to separate politics - and injustice, oppression and racial prejudice  rom sport but, while many international sportsmen and women were making a stand against apartheid, the men running English cricket again revealed how determined they were to hold to their stance to keep politics out of sport. A deeply conservative body run by deeply conservative men, the MCC proved it had learned nothing at all from the Basil d'Oliveira affair. The following year, 1970, the MCC invited the all-white South African team to tour Great Britain again. The outrage in Britain was massive but predictable. But it was only when the African, Asian and West Indian countries threatened to pull out of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh that the British Government was forced to intervene and cancel the tour. The key point in all this is not that the cricket and rugby tours were being supported by their respective UK governing bodies or that there was massive protests to these tours, but that the then Labour Government was so weak in its opposition to a regime that was every bit as fascist as that of Nazi Germany. The fact that South Africa was then Britain's third largest trading partner may have had something to do with our government's disgraceful prevarications. Despite this collaboration, by both government and governing body, with the South African racist regime, sport found itself in the front line in the battle against apartheid and More Than Just A Game is a very apt title for what may well be the most important football story ever told. And in one important sense this story has got one or two more chapters yet to be written; the chapter detailing South Africa's winning bid for the 2010 World Cup and of course, the coming events of that World Cup itself. Those that played football on Robben Island, against all the odds, will no doubt shed a tear or two when the opening ceremony finally comes around. From the prison camp football league on Robben Island to hosting the World Cup in a multi racial South Africa: that must surely be the most important football story ever told. JPK 25/05/09

Last Updated ( Sunday, 27 May 2018 15:25 )