Taking Part

Goal on Robben Island Photo by Gillian West

Goal on Robben Island Photo by Gillian West

I wanted a copy.

I am sure it had never happened before while looking at someone else’s holiday snaps, but right there in the middle of the 689 of my sister-in-law’s shots from South Africa I saw an image that I knew I wanted to see again and again. Don’t misunderstand, my sister-in-law is a great photographer. She captured beautiful shots of the clouds cascading over Table Mountain, a luxurious spread at a vineyard, and a close-up of a leopard lounging at his kill between meals. However, one picture touched me instantly and in a way that only powerful images can.

“It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” I can remember my mother saying this to me after lost matches.  I have even said it to the girls I coached. It’s well meant but as a player it annoyed me and as a coach I could see it did little to help my young team who felt crushed after a large defeat. 

Who can blame young players for this attitude? Winning is why you play, isn’t it? You don’t go out on to the pitch to lose. A hard-fought win feels so great. Many wins feel even better. At a professional level, football is a results driven game. Football managers are sacked on a regular basis because too many perceived loses.  Wins can make huge differences to a club’s financial situation and even decide their survival.

But then there was this picture.

Prisoners at Robben Island started playing football in 1963 in an inside exercise room with balled-up sheets of paper that could be dismantled quickly to avoid detection from guards. The games became popular.  In 1969, after four years of negotiating with prison officials, the prisoners were allowed to set up the Mankana Football Association.  Eventually there were three leagues of teams and the prisoners kept meticulous records of the games, results and referees. In the 1970s, prison officials erected a wall to make sure that Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in isolation could not view the games. Prisoners established an elaborate system of communication to keep those in isolation informed of match progress and results.  South African President Jacob Zuma and many other keys actors in the Anti-Apartheid movement were players and referees with the Association. In 2007, FIFA granted Mankana FA honorary membership in a ceremony on Robben Island and the film, More than just a game, telling the Association’s story was released.

“For us, playing soccer on Robben Island was just another way of survival and finding sanity in a situation intended to dehumanise us,” former inmate and Makana player Anthony Suze told the film launch ceremony.

“A game that other people take for granted helped a group of people find sanity.”

South Africa was also the setting for the great story told by the film Invictus. It showed us how sporting victory can make a difference. Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the underdog South African team’s ability to win the Rugby World Cup inspired the team to victory. The team’s campaign and utimate win helped start to heal the racial rifts in the post-Aparthied country.

The South African story told by sister-in-law’s photograph tells us even more about how “the taking part” can be just as powerful and important.  I am hoping for a framed copy for Christmas.

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About Jennifer Flueckiger

writer/blogger, accidental parisienne, girl's football/soccer coach, lover of travel and good food
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One Response to Taking Part

  1. bob says:

    It always should be more than a game.

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