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Africans have used soccer to improve their condition almost from the day the game arrived. Africa had its own sports wrestling in Nigeria, running in Kenya, stick fighting in South Africa's Zulu kingdom. But when the British Empire exported its sports to conquered lands, black Africa took soccer, and there it became a truly rebel game. Partly, that had to do with its simplicity. To play, says Leodegar Tenga, chairman of the East African soccer association, "you just need an empty space and something round." That quickly made it a favorite of the poor and marginalized.
Moreover, as the Robben Islanders would later realize, soccer's rules based on meritocracy, equality and self-determination had radical implications in an imperialist state. As Peter Alegi, a sports historian at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban and the author of the forthcoming African Soccerscapes, says, "The game was introduced by the British to Africa as the introduction of civilization to the savages." But "the British soon lost control of it" when Africans discovered the game "could be used against colonizers very effectively."
In 1940s and '50s Nigeria, future President Nnamdi Azikiwe created a soccer league to instill a sense of nationalism. In Algeria, the rebel National Liberation Front persuaded ethnic Algerians then playing for France to abandon their international careers in 1958 and join the "Revolutionary XI" a national squad that preceded the nation by four years. In Ghana, independence leader Kwame Nkrumah renamed the national team the Black Stars, after U.S. civil rights leader Marcus Garvey's old shipping line, and helped found the Confederation of African Football "to help propel our dear continent into the limelight [and earn it] a greater respectability and recognition." As Korr says, "Soccer changed Africa."
Nowhere was soccer's rebel spirit stronger than in South Africa. The Robben Islanders are just one chapter of a story that bound insurrection to the sport. The phenomenon was centered on South Africa's biggest shantytown, a sprawling warren of tin huts and red-dust lanes outside white Johannesburg called South Western Township or Soweto, for short.
Soccer and rebellion were inseparable in Soweto. It was early Sowetans, migrant mine and farm workers, who set up the first teams in opposition to whites-only leagues in the late 19th century. Sowetans also established the Inter Race Soccer Board in 1935 and, in 1937, the Orlando Pirates, the legendary township team that took the skull and crossbones as its standard. After 1948, when apartheid promoted white supremacy from social custom to legal requirement, Alegi says many soccer players "suddenly found themselves political activists" out of the simple desire to field and play the best teams. For Jordaan, a student activist and briefly a professional player, soccer "became the platform to build the struggle against apartheid."
In 1951, blacks, Indians and coloreds (a loose ethnic group including descendants of Malaysian slaves and those of mixed race) founded the South African Soccer Federation (SASF), which had color blindness written into its constitution. By the mid-1960s, the SASF's league was drawing crowds of all colors to watch mixed teams, including one with a white midfielder, Erik Tinkler, whose ponderous style prompted the fans to nickname him Mandela. "This was extraordinary," says Alegi. "It proved South Africans wanted to be integrated and was a smack in the face for apartheid orthodoxy, which held that segregation was needed to keep the peace."
It couldn't last. Once Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were jailed in 1963, the authorities turned on soccer. Players and officials were harassed. Grounds were closed. By 1965, come match day, the Pirates were to be found wandering the townships looking for an open space on which to erect their goalposts.
The SASF soon died. But soccer's connection to the antiapartheid movement endured. FIFA suspended South Africa in 1964. In 1979, it went further than any other international sporting body by making the end of apartheid an explicit condition of South Africa's return to world football. Inside the country, soccer became indivisible from the struggle. After student protesters were barred from rallying at Orlando soccer stadium in 1976, Soweto exploded in riots from which apartheid would never truly recover. In 1994, hours after being inaugurated as the first black president of a new South Africa, Mandela celebrated by watching the national team play Zambia at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg.
Today, South Africa's World Cup preparations give some hope that soccer might once again transform not just the nation but the world's idea of Africa. Staging the tournament presented South Africa with three challenges: infrastructure, transport and security. The country has turned the first two into unexpected triumphs. Airports have been upgraded into efficient constructs of steel and glass. New rail and rapid bus routes now stretch across Johannesburg and Soweto. Ten stadiums were rebuilt or newly built ahead of schedule and, like Soccer City, those in Cape Town and Durban are breathtaking pieces of architecture. All that may help explain the confidence and optimism coursing through South Africa and the whole continent in the run-up to the tournament. The dark continent is the past, Africans are saying. The future is full of goals.