July 18, 2007 / 2:35 PM / 11 years ago

Prison soccer league in spotlight on Mandela birthday

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Nelson Mandela earned his athletic stripes as a boxer, but on his 89th birthday on Wednesday the spotlight was on another sport that helped power the fight against apartheid — soccer.

Producers say they plan to make a movie about five young prisoners who helped set up a soccer club on apartheid South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison, where Mandela was jailed for almost two decades for fighting racist white rule.

“The world premiere will take place in South Africa,” Anant Singh said during an exclusive promotional clip of the movie “More than Just a Game” on the eve of Mandela’s birthday celebrations on Wednesday.

“It’s a story of human beings trying to succeed against all odds and to survive by something that, one would have thought would be simple, about playing soccer,” Singh said.

The non-fiction movie set during the late 1950s traces the lives of Anthony Suze, Mark Shinners, Lizo Sitoto, Sedick Isaacs and Marcus Solomons, who fought prison authorities to allow soccer games and then helped form an organized soccer association of political prisoners called Makana FA.

On Wednesday Makana FA received honorary membership of soccer’s world governing body FIFA during a special ceremony on Robben Island as part of Mandela’s 89th birthday celebrations.

“It must always be remembered that I was one of many who fought for freedom from tyranny and racism. It is fitting, therefore, that FIFA will also pay homage to the Makana Football Association on Robben Island,” Mandela said in a statement.

The Robben Island event came ahead of a special star-studded “90 Minutes for Mandela” soccer game in Cape Town featuring Brazil’s Pele and other international soccer stars as well as a host of African legends of the game.

Mandela, who became South Africa’s first president after democratic elections in 1994, said Robben Island’s Makana FA drew prisoners together and helped uphold the values of tolerance, inclusiveness and reconciliation.

Mandela was housed in the prison’s isolation wing and never had the opportunity to play in or watch any of the games.

The movie stars Presley Chwengeyagae, who played a South African thug in the 2006 Oscar-winning movie Tsotsi.

Shot on location at Robben Island and in Cape Town, the soccer movie cost less than 20 million rand ($2.8 million) to produce and is expected to be unveiled in November.

“It was very important for me to be in this film. It was part of our history and I’m glad to be part of this history,” Chwengeyagae told Reuters, adding that he had taken extra football lessons for the role.

“They were in prison so long, but they still came out as decent, dignified men and that really teaches me a lot,” Chwengeyagae said.

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