Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Field of Dreams: Prisoner's Confederations Cup

The echo comes, reverberating from deep inside. It crashes against thick walls and cold bars as it tries to find its way outside. Deep masculine voices sound as one. Feet stamp down the tune in rhythmic cadence, move as one. Into the earth their message goes, a warning to those they are to face in battle.

“We live together, we die together, a dead man is a dead man. We live together, we die together, a dead man is a dead man.”

They move out of the dark, into the light, away from the solid brick and mortar, past rows of jagged wire, electrified barbs, watching guards, into a tunnel of mesh confinement. The makeshift Egyptian flag held up for the other teams to see.

The drone of a big bus engine is not enough to put them off as it swallows them up. Hands and feet strike roof and floor. The singing continues as they are ferried off, off to the field of dreams.
And so the last of the players departs from Section B at the start of the final day of the Gauteng Correctional Services Offenders 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. Egypt, offenders from Johannesburg Central Management Area, are in high spirits as they are to face the USA, Leeuwkop, for the championship title.


“When we received the news that South Africa was going to host both the Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup,” says organiser Brian Kotzen, “we came together and decided that seeing as though most of these offenders won’t be able to go to the stadium…if they can’t go to the Confederations Cup then let’s bring it to them.”

As Vice-Chairperson of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture for the Gauteng province Correctional Services, Kotzen sees the project as being one part of a bigger strategy to fight crime by using sport to give offenders the tools they need to properly reintegrate when returning to society.

Eight management areas in the province were tasked with brainstorming what was a logistical challenge. With around 22 players per team, plus offenders who made up coaching and management staff, meant transporting over 150 offenders from more than eight prisons to Zonderwater Management Area, as well as accommodating them for the duration.

The tournament was played over five days from 25 to 29 May meaning organisers had to oversee ten matches, stage opening and closing ceremonies, as well as coordinate the guests, families of offenders, and the various performing groups.

The tournament was closely modelled the real Confederations Cup with special care being taken to carry the detail through at every level, giving the experience a realistic quality and authenticity.

The tournament at Zonderwater was characterised by good sportsmanship and friendship with most offenders saying that soccer and this experience of the Confederations Cup were positive forces in their lives.

Another by-product of the tournament was the bettering of relationships between offenders and their members (warders). The members were often the most vocal during their team’s games, animating the sidelines and screaming advice to players. There were many moments when, together in the spirit of soccer, the boundary between offender and member were collapsed as they shared in the love of the game.

“We are so grateful to our members,” says Reginald Kgatla, “that they have brought us here and it shows me that this not prison but a rehabilitation centre…because you are in prison it doesn’t mean you are nothing, it shows me that if you are inside and you have some discipline, control and respect it can take you to a place like where we are today.

The success of the tournament has lead to discussion around holding a World Cup in May of 2010 which will also be closely modelled on the real tournament, only this time featuring prison teams from all over the country.

Soccer’s difficult and distinguished history in South Africa is what makes it the country’s most popular sport. These offenders have found strength and positive values in the world’s favourite game and it has brought with it the benefits of unity and collective action.

The events over the five days in Zonderwater were but a microcosm of the role and significance that soccer holds in South African society; its positive influence and the values it teaches. It could be said that soccer is one repository of the country’s dreams.


Sylvester Ngobese of the winning USA says that his dream is to become a soccer ambassador, like his hero and ex-South African captain Lucas Radebe, and to use his position to engage the youth on crime.

“Soccer is the thing that will keep them together, help to build a team and keep them on solid ground. Because you can’t be apart in soccer…we have the same language inside (soccer). It is soccer that is building us.”

Then, joining his dancing, singing teammates as they make their way down toward the waiting bus, the routine and reality of prison returning, he steps out of formation again, turns and says:

“You see there are eleven different instruments but only one rhythm...”

Pictures by Bram Lammers

Originally published by


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