FIFA's historic meeting at Robben Island
As a symbol of the changing face of South Africa, the decision to hold the latest gathering of FIFA's movers and shakers at the place where Nelson Mandela was famously imprisoned for 18 years could not have been bettered.
Forty-five years after football's world governing body suspended South Africa because of its iniquitous apartheid regime, one of the most notorious penal colonies of the last century was the landmark venue for Thursday's FIFA executive committee meeting on the eve of the draw for next year's World Cup finals.
The prison, a 30-minute ferry trip in the shadow of Table Mountain, was supposed at the time to break both spirits and bodies, not least those of Nelson Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma, who was also jailed by the white minority government.
The prison is now a tourist attraction but there are plenty of reminders of the past including Mandela's cramped, grim cellblock and black and white portraits of the hardships inflicted on inmates and the trials of many of the political prisoners who had dared challenge white supremacy.
Yet football, it emerged during a whistle-stop tour of the island, played a critical role in preserving the sanity of prisoners who lived an otherwise degrading existence. Zuma, it emerged, was a highly proficient referee while the Makana Football Association, the league of eight teams set up on the island and named after a tribal chief who was killed trying to escape the fortress, was made an honorary member of FIFA two years ago
"Mandela used to watch us from his cell window, standing on a chair or a box," Mark Shinners, who served a combined 23 years on the island between 1963 and 1990, told reporters. "But eventually even that was taken away from him."
The prison league became so serious that prisoners even lost sleep before games. And sometimes, if their relatives visited on match days, they would forego seeing their loved ones in favour of their greater love for football. "This place represents a triumph of the human spirit," said Tokyo Sexwale, another former prisoner who is now a member of FIFA's fair play committee. "We came here young with small feet but the spirit of survival prevailed among us. We had to stand together for the right even to play football.
"We put rags together to make footballs and we used to kick them around in our cells. It was illegal to have a proper ball at the time but we used football as a tool of resistance to unite ourselves. And now we have FIFA holding an executive committee meeting here."
While football on Robben Island might sound like a contradiction, thousands of documents discovered by historians in Cape Town after the prison was closed down proves this was not the case. The rules of the game were strictly adhered to and helped ease the physical and psychological abuse, the daily routine of hard labour and the minimal rations.
Chuck Korr, who highlighted the history of football on Robben Island in a book published last year, couldn't believe some of the surprises he encountered while researching. "They were writing formal letters complaining about everything to do with the game," said Korr. "That's what led me to realize how seriously they took it. Denis Howell, the former British sports minister, wrote the authoritative book on refereeing. Somehow they managed to smuggle in a copy. It was the second most read book in the prison library."
When England beat Germany in the 1966 final, a letter was smuggled into the inmates describing the match in detail. "We knew about the controversial England goal and everything," said Shinners who trotted out a stream of anecdotes. "When it was foggy or misty the matches got cancelled cos the guards had to have at least 15 metres of visibility. They were not good days. You have to understand. Football saved our sanity."