There is a small, flat island 12 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town with an incredible soccer history.

Here the prisoners of South Africa’s apartheid regime, including Nelson Mandela, broke rocks in a quarry as punishment for opposing racial segregation.

At Robben Island, the country’s white minority went about the business of degrading leaders of the African National Congress, who they considered to be terrorists.

“They attempted to dehumanize us from the start,” Dr. Sedick Isaacs said as he walked slowly across the overgrown playing fields still baking in the hot sun and surrounded by razor wire.

“Once we got over here the guards began to assault us and told us we would never see home again.”

Isaacs served time at Robben Island from 1964 to 1977. He and other prisoners subsisted on meagre rations of porridge. They were regularly beaten and verbally abused by the guards.

But in the paltry library, they found a FIFA rule book and devised a plan to play soccer in an organized fashion; partly as resistance, but mostly to endure.

The result was the Makana Football Association, which required every prisoner to take part as either a player or an official. The International Red Cross was an ally in pressuring Robben Island wardens to allow the men time for exercise.

The prisoners responded by grading their own fields and forming a three-division league, replicating the structure of international soccer at the highest level.

“Soccer was our survival,” said Isaacs. “It was a moment of joy we anticipated. Once the games were over we would relive them for the next few days, and by that time we could look forward to playing again the following Saturday.”

Sedick Isaacs still gets flashbacks when he returns to Robben Island. He lost much of his spirit here, along with his youth. But he has strong feelings about soccer and the common ground he cultivated with his fellow detainees.

Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tens of thousands are expected to visit during this summer’s FIFA World Cup.

While the most high-profile soccer ever played on African soil will unfold at stadiums like Green Point in Cape Town, perhaps the most significant games took place on this barren island just offshore.

– Gemini Award winner and author Scott Russell is the Host of CBC Sports Weekend seen Saturday afternoons. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, he has covered a variety of professional and amateur sports including nine Olympic games and numerous world championships.