Chuck Korr writes about his visit to the South Africa WC 2010 Draw


Thirty two hours to get from St. Louis to Cape Town and thirty five hours to get back. Hard to determine which is worse, spending thirteen hours in a coach seat or seven hours in an airport, even if it’s Schipol that has a branch of one of the greatest museums in the world in the middle of the terminal. All of that time to spend five days in Cape Town – and all of it worth the time, trouble, and expense.

Readers of this newsletter and admirers of Tom’s newest t-shirt will already know that I was in Cape Town for the World Cup final round draw. That’s not totally true – I was there because of the draw, but there were attractions besides the draw that were even more important to me. That’s saying a lot given the drama surrounding the draw – the U. S. v England, Cote d’Ivoire (the best team in Africa) ending up in the same group as Brazil and Portugal, and the host country having to deal with France, Mexico, and Uruguay – brought groans and cheers from the packed convention centre and must have kept the world wide television audience on the edge of its collective seats. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the huge attraction of football should take a second look at the t.v. ratings for an event that runs much longer than an hour and whose most lively action consists of people pulling little balls out of a glass bowl. Clearly, no one was going to be glued to their sets (or computers) just to hear the banter that went on between participants, even if that did include some of the world’s most famous sporting names.

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Outside the site of the draw, Sampson Adama (Nigerian former student of mine who works for FIFA), Mark Shinners, Lizo Sitoto, Chuck Korr, Tony Suze
Convention Centre, note the security fence

If there was any reason to pay attention besides waiting for the next name to be announced, it was the presenter for the program, South Africa’ most notable export Charlize Theron. She was the perfect choice for the job – a combination of stunning beauty, intelligence, and wit. Even if some South Africans may complain that she has an American accent, she’s the essence of the hometown girl made good who never forgot where she came from. Every chance she gets, she reminds the world just how much South Africa has done in the very short time since it became a free country.

Cape Town has a reputation of caring less about football than most other cities in the country. The fact that it went crazy over the draw, one more sign of how much hosting the World Cup means to South Africans. For a day leading up to the draw, there were roadblocks around major streets in the city center and from early morning there were people blowing on vuvuzelas. Get used to them, they will be a part of life throughout the World Cup no matter how much some English journalists and European players might protest.

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Charlize Theron and South African television talk show host
Representative of Germany 2006 handing World Cup trophy to President Jacob Zuma and Sepp Blatter

   The city closed one of its major streets so it could construct a huge television monitor to let people watch the event and to party. They expected 15,000 to show up and finally had to block the entrance when they figured that 50,000 were there. No hassles, no fights, just one big open air party on a beautiful night following a 75 degree afternoon. The crowd at the draw saw the event first hand and added to the drama, but the Long Street party was the place to be if you were a local. I got to enjoy some of both, since the partying went on long after the draw ended and my hotel was fifty yards away from Long Street. The BBC World service even had a reporter up on a balcony so he could tape some of the party to broadcast it around the world.

The mention of media reminds me that American t.v. viewers of the World Cup got very lucky a few months ago when ESPN hired Martin Tyler as its lead commentator. He is the best in the business, an English combination of Jack Buck, Vin Scully, and Bob Costas. He’s spent some time in St. Louis, understands how soccer has developed in this country and is even a baseball fan. Don’t expect him ever to call the game “soccer” on the air. It would be phony coming from someone who still plays and coaches “football” in England

But, I digress from the Cape Town journal ….

   Both the city authorities and FIFA officials were taking security very seriously. Credentials and tickets for the event were monitored closely, quite a task when you start with about 1300 international media and add to that the representatives of the various federations, the South African vip’s, and the innumerable other people (myself included) who felt they had a reason to be there. Getting my ticket for the draw was an adventure. Both FIFA and the BBC had set up credentials for me and they each thought the other would take care of it. A FIFA official told me that morning that he would handle the ticket. True to his word, he phoned me to tell me where to pick up the ticket. The only problem was that the ticket was waiting for me inside the security perimeter surrounding the convention centre and its adjacent hotel – a set of steel barriers stretching for blocks. There were quite a few entrances, each of them manned by security people with varying badges. Lots of ways to get to the hotel’s “hospitality desk” (never was something given a more Orwellian name) to get my ticket. The only problem was that you needed either credentials or a ticket to get through the security and into the hotel. I was about to give up after two hours of being turned away, when I met two well dressed men trying to get their tickets. I joined forces with Hassan Abdulla Al-Thawadi, ceo of the QATAR 2022 bid committee for one last try. The security official told us that the front door of the hotel was open and was surprised when I told him that was fine, but the security fence was two blocks in front of it. “That’s ridiculous”, he said and marched us through the back door, through the service area and into the main lobby where there really was a hospitality desk that really had a ticket (actually, two) in my name.

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The new Green Point Stadium in Cape Town
At the draw... Jerome Champagne welcoming Tony Suze, Lizo Sitoto, and Mark Shinners

The crowd at the draw was dressed in a style that would have been appropriate for a presidential inauguration party. The elite of world football mingled with the all the leading politicians, business people, and media figures of South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu (probably the person I admire most) was there as were the leadership of every football association bidding for either 2018 or 2022. For a while, center stage was taken by a former number 5 of the Rangers Football Club from the late-1960’s (one of the teams of prisoners on Robben Island), a tough defender named Jacob Zuma. This time, he was there in his new capacity as the President of the Republic of South Africa.

  The international nature of the event was evident from the clothing and the accents of the hundreds of people milling around the convention centre before taking their seats. The man sitting next to me was the epitome of what was happening – born in Mozambique with Portuguese parents, educated in Canada and the U. S. and now the chairman of the largest football club in Costa Rica. After telling me how sad his countrymen were about the collapse of their team in the qualifying round, he said how wonderful it would be to hope for a Portugal v U. S. final. He told me that his ticket arrangements had not worked out and that a “very nice man” had given him a spare ticket. Of course, that was my second ticket, the one I had given to my friend, Mark Shinners, in case his ticket was not waiting for him.

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New Cape Town stadium seen from boat returning from Robben Island
Goal posts (built by Tony Suze and other prisoners) in 1971

  No one in the whole convention centre meant more to me or was a better symbol of what makes South Africa so special than those men sitting a few rows away from me – Lizo Sitoto, Mark Shinners, and Tony Suze. There were there as the guests of Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA and Jerome Champagne, the head of international relations for FIFA. I was there because of my relationship with the three men and could not be more proud of anything than to be grouped with them. What had happened to them the day before the draw was the real reason I went to Cape Town. That was the day that the Makana Football Association returned to Robben Island and FIFA and the world’s media were there to greet it.

  Almost fifteen hundred journalists received credentials for last December's draw for the finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There were there to cover the excitement of the draw, interview celebrities, and hear messages of welcome from Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA and Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa. A day earlier, many of the reporters were with David Beckham as he went to host a football clinic in one of the townships that surround Cape Town. At the same time, almost three hundred media people took a thirty minute boat ride to an island a few miles off the coast to cover an event featuring Mark Shinners, Tony Suze, Lizo Sitoto, and Sedick Isaacs.

  These friends of mine were virtually unknown to almost all of the reporters or cameramen until that day. Five hours on Robben Island changed that and was the reason I was in Cape Town. As far as I was concerned, the draw was just an added attraction, albeit a very special one. They could easily have been joined my President Zuma since he had been an integral part of the reason for the media event on Robben island. All of them had been founding members of one of the most unique and important football organizations, the Makana Football Association. This organized league was created in 1969 by political prisoners who had been sentenced to the Island by the South African government as punishments for their efforts to end apartheid and create a democratic South Africa. In 2007, FIFA had recognized the importance of the Makana FA to football and to South Africa by making it the first association to ever become an honorary member of FIFA.

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This is NOT a test version of goal line technology. It is cameramen behind the goal on Robben Island pitch On the news (1973) soccer pitch - Tony Suze, Mark Shinners, Sedick Isaacs, Sepp Blatter

The day on the Island started with a brief press conference by the four men and presided over by Tokyo Sexwale. He is a Cabinet minister, prominent businessman, host of South African version of "The Apprentice, member of the local organizing committee of the 2010 World Cup and a former prisoner on Robben Island. He served thirteen years on the Island and left in 1990, when all political prisoners were released. The other four men served a total of 64 years in prison. Sexwale was sentenced in 1976; the other four arrived in 1963 and 1964. One of the legacies they left to Sexwale and men of his generation was the hard won right to play football and a structure that included multiple leagues, a regulation pitch, uniforms, a club structure, a referees association, and all the other attributes that would have existed had they been free men running an association in their homes on the mainland of South Africa.

On that sunny Thursday in December, the media split up into four groups, each of which followed one of the former prisoners around the grounds of the prison while they explained how they lived, the brutality of the system, and what it took to create a football league. They even described some of the matches. At first, the reporters seemed bewildered, but in a few minutes, they jostled with one another to ask their questions. After a while, they each got the opportunity to talk with the men in small groups and to ask more detailed questions about what happened on the island. Two questions seemed to be part of almost every interview - why did football mean so much to them while they were on the Island and what did they think that the world Cup would mean to South Africa.

Robben Island was where the apartheid government of South Africa consigned its most dangerous political opponents. Long identified with its most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, by 1967 the prison housed almost two thousand men - most of who lived in over-crowded communal cells with minimal rations, and barely adequate clothing. The island was meant to break the men's spirits as well as their bodies. One man who served twenty eight years on the Island as part of a life sentence for conspiracy said in a matter of fact tone, "Officially, the idea was to destroy us, physically, morally, mentally, in all ways." Bad food, back breaking work in the stone quarry, arbitrary punishment by the guards, and efforts to de-humanize the prisoners by psychological tricks were part of everyday life on the Island. The purpose of the island was both to punish them and to deter other from following in a path of resistance. When Sedick Isaacs was in detention before his trial, he was in a cell with a common criminal. When Isaacs asked about the charges against the men, he responded that they were multiple murders, rapes, and dozens of assaults. He asked Isaacs about his situation, to which the slightly build science and math teacher replied "I'm involved in politics". His cell mate was stunned and cautioned Isaacs, "Politics, that's dangerous stuff, man."

Football on Robben Island sounds like an oxymoron, but the thousands of handwritten documents that I discovered in a Cape Town archive showed otherwise. Painstakingly written by the prisoners themselves, on full pages, bits of paper, or even scraps of the brown cement bags that were used during the building of the prison, the documents detail the curious story of how, in 1966, the inmates started the process to create their own football association which stringently adhered to all the guidelines set down by FIFA. When I started to go through the documents, I discovered the prisoners used massive quantities of scarce paper to keep detailed minutes of meetings, to write reports, and letters to one another. These letters were formal and included internal addresses even though all were written by men who were living in communal cells, eating together, working together, stripped search together and had virtually no private lives other than the inner thoughts and dreams. Why they should bother to address material and why have the need for such over stated formality made me realize immediately that they were involved in something much more than playing a game.

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Mark Shinners in prisoner courtyard with contingent of press
Press conference with (l. to r.) Lizo Sitoto, Tony Suze, Tokyo Sexwale, Sedick Isaacs

Any concessions the prisoners wrested from the authorities were a result of their own determination and political skills. The prisoners became aware of their rights under the rules of the prison bureau, which included the opportunity for exercise. They also knew that were entitled to make written complaints about their treatment. Several did exactly that, demanding on a weekly basis their right (they were adamant that it was a right, not a privilege) to play football. A different group of men went each week. Their request would be denied and the men making it would be punished by having their already meagre rations cut, but each week there were other men making the same protest.

No matches took place until the structures were in place. A committee spent weeks writing a constitution for the Makana Football Association. The first clause identified the aims and objectives of the Association which included:

"To organize and promote the game of soccer and to inculcate the spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill among the inmates of Robben Island New Gaol"

"To organize matches that will not only serve the interests of the players, but also of the spectators"

"To see that all players adhere to the standards as prescribed by F.I.F.A.

The game quickly became a focal point on the Island. Matches provided drama and release and competition was fierce, but soccer's significance went far beyond its recreational value. Beyond all the organising, however, what mattered most for the majority of the men was the football itself. "You can only do so many seminars and have so many political meetings, and then you have to have some fun," pointed out one man at a recent gathering of former Robben Island inmates. Many of those exiled to the island were young men who had enjoyed playing football on the mainland and were now able to rediscover at least one of the pleasures from the life that had been snatched away from them. It is almost impossible for them to exaggerate how much the game meant to them. Lizo Sitoto, former Manong FC goalkeeper, remembers it as "the only time we were in the sun and fresh air when we weren't being worked almost to death."

The matches meant almost as much to non-players, the hundreds of men who crowded the touch line each week. One former prisoner summed it up, "From Saturday to Tuesday, everyone would talk about last week's matches and from Wednesday to Friday, next week's. The prisoners in the isolation section including Nelson Mandela could not participate in any of the sports activities and they were not supposed to know anything about it. Of course, news about football was smuggled into them and many became supporters. When the authorities realized that Mandela and his section could see some of the matches at certain times of day, a wall was built to ensure that this did not happen any longer.

The respect accorded to FIFA and its statutes by the prisoners was recognition of how much importance the men placed on order and structure. The inmates were adamant that they were going to play by internationally accepted rules despite the efforts of the authorities to push them to the margins of society. Many of the prisoners remember their excitement when they learned, from a smuggled in newspaper, that FIFA had suspended the Football Association of South Africa.

The former prisoners who returned to the Island in December, 2009 are realistic in their assessment of the present and their hopes for the future. They also share feelings that hosting the World Cup is important for South Africa. To Sedick Isaacs, "The World Cup symbolically tells us that we are back in the world of sports and the world is coming to us." For Lizo Sitoto, "It's a dream come true.I wish all the prisoners who stayed on Robben Island could witness this rejoicing." Mark Shinners told the assembled media, ""It's a moment of great joy. It's a dream we always had, even when it seemed so unrealistic."

In a few months' time, South Africa will complete its difficult journey from being an international sporting pariah to being the host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But as Jacob Zuma welcomes the world to his country this June, many of the president's fellow prisoners on Robben Island will still see before them the tough defender who captained the island's Rangers Football Club.

I have been fortunate enough to get to know many of the men who played in the Makana F A. I have spoken with them about their time as prisoners and have learned about the terrible conditions they faced, as well as the hopes they held for the future of a free South Africa. Most of all, I have seen and heard just show much football meant to them while they were on the Island. But I gained a whole new appreciation of them and their experiences while I listened to them talking with reporters from so many parts of the world - ranging from Britain to Japan, Spain to Iran, the U. S. to Brazil, the Netherlands to Australia. The curiosity these veteran reporters showed about what had happened on the Island was matched by the respect they had for the men who were telling the story. If Mandela was the general in the revolution, they were the foot soldiers who made possible the final victory. Now their story was getting to the public thanks to the power of football.

Towards the end of the day, the four men walked o9ut on to the football pitch they had created in 1973 for a ceremony to recognize the contribution made by the Makana FA. They were joined in front of a newly positioned goal by Sexwale, Blatter, and two former prisoners who were sentenced in the 1980's. Standing around them and behind the goal was a crowd that was much rowdier than any that watched matches on the island - the dozens of photographers from around the world who were there to make sure this event (unlike the football that had been played there for decades) was not unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Some of you joined me at the Tivoli Theatre in November, 2008 to see the U. S. premier of the film "More Than Just a Game", the docudrama that tells the story of football on Robben Island. Those of you who saw the film will know why the events of last December meant so much to me. This May and June, the film will be shown on television networks around the world as part of World Cup coverage. The U. S. edition of a book of the same name will be published in May.

Shortly after the draw, a respected football correspondent, John Dillon wrote in the London Sunday Express and captured the essence of the Makana FA:

"From tonight's draw until the end of the World Cup next July, the ideals and the spirit of the men who played there [Robben Island] will live again.The story of the Makana FA will resonate through it all. Without it, there would be no World Cup in South Africa."

Dillon would have enjoyed meeting Sipho Tshabalala, who had been the best goal keeper on the Island. When Tshabalala was released from prison in August, 1971, he wrote a farewell letter thanking his comrades for the opportunity to join them in football. hoped that someday South Africa "would find a place in the Great Competitive Soccer World .. Should our courage and determination put us through to success, my contention is that Someday we will meet the Giants of the Soccer World."

"Success" to Tshabalala and his comrades meant the creation of a free and democratic South Africa. Participating in the World Cup would signify that South Africa had gained freedom and rejoined the community of nations. Tshabalala died in 2008 and did not see Bafana Bafana on the pitch in the Confederations Cup. But he did vote in elections starting in 1994 and did attend the World Cup draw in 2007As one of the founders of the Makana FA, he proudly was part of a ceremony in 2007 on Robben Island. His dreams and his predictions had come true. Tshabalala and so many other prisoners on Robben Island knew that football was more than just a game.

More than just a game "More Than Just A Game" will be released in it's second edition in April 2010.  You can pre-order Chuck's book from his publisher or get it at amazon.com.

If you purchase the book, we are sure that Chuck will be happy to sign it for you.  You can catch him at one of our gatherings or just about any time West Ham United is playing.  Help the "Hammers" from getting relegated this summer by purchasing Chuck's book. 

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