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But Mandela and the other anti-apartheid leaders weren’t allowed to take part for fear they would influence the prison population. The jailers also denied him the pleasure of watching others play. They erected a concrete wall to block Mandela’s view from his cell in the isolated block, a prison within a prison. They couldn’t, however, prevent the occasional joyous exclamations from the games drifting over.

In 2007, FIFA conferred honorary status on the Makana Football Association that was formed by Robben Island inmates in the 1960s and under which they played their games. The prisoners say they adhered strictly to the rules of international soccer after a book of FIFA’s regulations was found in the prison library. Every article was copied by hand onto new pages that could be taken away.

Today, the outline of Cape Town’s 2010 World Cup stadium can just about be seen from the prison’s once sandy field, now overgrown with shrubs. Ultimately, and with Mandela’s help, the World Cup came within a few miles of Robben Island.

Former prisoner and soccer player Lizo Gladwell Sitoto recalled that for a television documentary as South Africa prepared to host the world’s biggest tournament.

“If maybe one had those godly powers, we could say to the graves, `Get all those ex-islanders out of the graves and let them see what is happening,’” he said.

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Follow Gerald Imray at http://www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP