Academic journal article The International Sports Law Journal

The Atlantic Raiders Affair

Academic journal article The International Sports Law Journal

The Atlantic Raiders Affair

Article excerpt

This is the true story of how the political prisoners of South Africa's infamous Robben Island turned football into an active force in their struggle for freedom. Despite torture, regular beatings and backbreaking labour, these extraordinary men defied all odds and played organized league football in one of the ugliest and most brutal hellholes on earth. Even more astonishingly, they played the game for nearly 20 years with strict adherence to FIFA rules.

Told through the eyes of former prisoners, this factual account chronicles their arrival on the island, their years of ceaseless campaigning to be allowed to play on an abandoned patch of land, the creation and success of the Makana Football Association and their triumph over the prison authorities every time their right to play the beautiful game was threatened. But as the football league grew in popularity, so did the challenges, forcing the prisoners to not only wrestle with the apartheid establishment, but also to manage themselves.

This incredible story celebrates bravery and heroism and shows how sport has the power to unite and overcome adversity.

'We lost to a hopeless side and we had to get some concessions for the sake of our pride.' Benny Ntoele, Prisoner 287/63

In the prison kitchens, Freddie Simon was on the look-out for food to smuggle out. Now that the daily diet had improved a little on the island, thanks to pressure from prisoners and the International Red Cross, the men were occasionally given eggs and vegetables, and more of the fish and chicken that went into the drums of maize porridge was proper meat rather than fat, bone, and gristle, so the pickings were a lot richer.

They needed to be. Manong FC was holding a clandestine victory party, an extraordinary and unheard of event in the prison. It was to celebrate its triumph in the championship. Other prisoners had helped out with supplies too. A couple of guinea fowl had been caught, and a dozen or so sea gull's eggs had been foraged from the beach, but Freddie and his friends in the kitchens, sympathetic common- law prisoners, had been charged with providing the lion's share.

On the evening of the party, in June 1970, the smuggled food was distributed to the team and their guests across the various cell blocks, and there was a great deal of backslapping. How loud the celebrations became depended on which of the guards were on duty: some enjoyed supporting football on the island and turned a blind eye, but others were far less sympathetic, and would come down on the party like a ton of bricks. In the cell blocks they patrolled that night, the inmates kept the noise levels down.

The Manong players had made a point of inviting fellow prisoners to join in with their celebrations, and most took it in good humour - there were certainly few enough reasons to celebrate in Robben Island Prison. Some, however, saw the invitation as nothing more than a chance for Manong to show off. In their eyes, the club was getting above itself, and its arrogance was beginning to extend well beyond the pitch. Manong FC was taling itself up, the players saying just how much they themselves rated their skills and how far ahead they were of any other team on the island. They had a point: the statistics proved it, as did the consistently expansive style they'd employed throughout the season.

As they chattered and congratulated themselves and each other, the seed of an idea began to develop. Manong's players decided they weren't being given the competition that their talents deserved. The solution they came up with would indirectly trigger a chain of events that would come close to destroying everything that the Makana Football Association was trying to create and cause disharmony among those in the prison community that would continue to rankle for thirty years.

One evening soon after the victory party, Tony Suze and a handful of fellow Manong club members sat down to compose a letter to the football association. …

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