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More than just a Book
on 19 April 2010
I need to declare an interest here. For a decade during the period covered by this book I was contributing to a couple of sports programmes emanating from the BBC's World Service studios. I felt strongly about South Africa's abominable apartheid regime and, within BBC editorial limits, spoke out against it when I could. I also withdrew from the opportunity to ghost a book for a South African golfer on the same grounds. So it won't seem surprising that I found inspirational the story of how football had a liberating effect on the inmates of Robben Island - liberating in spirit if not in terms of physical boundaries. For its political message, More than Just a Game deserves to be widely read.
That said, I hope I may be permitted a criticism or two. Chuck Korr, the prime mover of the book and the docudrama that preceded it, is an American professor who claims to be "familiar with the development of team sports in Britain." No doubt that is true but the Professor still writes like an observer of football from the outside rather than one who has the game in his blood. Crucially, he makes much of the assertion that the Makana Football Association organised the game in the prison "in strict accordance with FIFA rules." Had they done so The Atlantic Raiders Affair, which gets a 28-page chapter to itself, would never have escalated into a cause célèbre. With the underdogs leading in a Cup game, there was prolonged barracking and dissent over disputed decisions. Whereupon the referee "stormed off the pitch. A new match official was hastily brought on. In the chaos that ensued, it was never clear who had appointed the referee or even if he was qualified."
Professor Korr seems not to understand - or if he does, fails to mention it - that a travesty of football discipline had occurred. FIFA rules require games to be played under the Laws of Association Football. That would have resulted in the game being officially abandoned by the referee when he "stormed off the pitch". Subsequently, it would have been dealt with by the appropriate disciplinary body. Similarly, the author reports instances of spectators entering the pitch in an attempt to deal with a perceived error, of teams lodging complaints about refereeing decisions, and teams requesting changes to referees' appointments. At no point is it suggested that this was anything other than "in strict accordance with FIFA rules."
As a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit over vile oppression, this story needed to be told. It just seems a pity that, for the part played by the game of football, it has been told by an American professor who writes like a professor.