From 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.
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This is a fascinating footnote to the struggle against apartheid. Condemned in the 1960s to Robben Island, a harsh prison off the coast of South Africa, the young political prisoners fought for and won the right to play soccer. The sport became popular, giving participants and spectators alike a much-needed sense of self-esteem while offering diversion from an otherwise monotonous existence. In a Hollywood version of this story, prisoners and guards would learn to respect one another despite their differences—and some of that happened, but the authors don’t stop there. Drawing on first-person accounts and an archive of prisoners’ writings, they detail the infighting that later racked the astonishingly well-organized league. Sports can be uplifting and they can cause pettiness, too. If there’s a flaw with the book, it’s the way, after the first chapters, soccer madness allows us to forget too often the brutality of prison conditions. But it’s well worth reading, even by those who don’t know a thing about soccer. And, given that South Africa is hosting this year’s World Cup, the authors’ timing couldn’t be better. --Keir Graff