Soccer and South African Politics

The Root's partner site Foreign Policy explains how South Africa's contemporary leaders used soccer to undermine apartheid.

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by Nicholas Griffin

Imagine an alternate reality of the United States in the 1960s, where the collective experience of the political elite had been formed in all-black baseball leagues. The country is led by President Jackie Robinson, Vice President Satchel Paige, and Secretary of State Willie Mays. Sounds crazy? Replace baseball with soccer, and you've got South Africa, a country that has given new meaning to "political football."

Much attention has been paid to President Nelson Mandela's role in South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, captured in the film Invictus. But Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town native, historian, and author, describes that tournament as "a blip" in South Africa's history of racial conflict. "The real story," he says, "is soccer."

And the real story begins several miles from the site of Cape Town's swanky new stadium -- on Robben Island, which will be clearly visible to billions of TV viewers as they tune in to this month's World Cup. The island prison colony was home to thousands of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid era. Of the men who played in the prison's soccer league, an astonishing number would go on to become important figures in shaping post-apartheid South Africa.

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