For Ruud Gullit, coming to South Africa to visit Robben Island and play for Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday, was the culmination of a personal crusade that began three decades ago.
The country that will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ is a place
of spectacular natural beauty that offers everything - the sea,
wildlife, mountain ranges, wine farms, gold mines...you name it,
South Africa's got it.
But sadly it's also a country with a history of pain, where blacks who by far make up the country's majority, were for decades inhumanely treated and savagely persecuted by their apartheid rulers - because of the colour of their skin.
Mandela, who spent 27 years in confinement on Robben Island for
his role in fighting apartheid, is - and always will be - South
Africa's heart and soul.
He's the biggest symbol of South Africa's divided past, but more importantly he is also the symbol of its victory over apartheid and it's proud ascent to democracy in 1994 when he became the country's first black president.
Gullit dedicated his 1987 European Footballer of the Year Award to Mandela, who at the time was still imprisoned by the South African apartheid forces who had by law entrenched the racial segregation of black and white people - and brutally and violently enforced those laws. When Gullit won the World Footballer of the Year Awards in 1987 and again in 1989, he continued to dedicate his football accolades to Mandela and the fight against racism.
Gullit has met Mandela many times, but this week for the first time visited Robben Island, the notorious offshore prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity. "For me this trip means a lot," Gullit told FIFA.com as he walked on the island and heard how political prisoners arrived there by boat in chains and leg irons and were stripped naked - and also stripped of their identities - being referred to only by their prison numbers.
He's a famous soccer star and is used to being photographed, but on Robben Island Gullit was the one with the camera, snapping away and saving the images for posterity. Gullit gasped as he saw the barren 2metre by 1.5metre cell where the 1,93metre tall Mandela was kept in solidarity confinement. "It's incredible. I don't believe it," said Gullit as he walked away from the cell.
It was further affirmation that his own personal plight to bring attention to South Africa's freedom fighters was well worth it.
"Holland was one of the instigators in Europe in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. I grew up with it, it was a part of my life. When I was just a teenager I had friends in a reggae band who used to sing anti-apartheid songs. We had festivals and we campaigned on the radio. We were very conscious. Mandela meant a lot to the world. He's something special. There's only a few people in the history of mankind with that kind of charisma. Being in South Africa to celebrate his 89th birthday is quite an honour. But my award was not only for him, it was also for people like Steve Biko and many others, who did so much to defy apartheid. Growing up in a free country, you can't imagine the horrors of apartheid, and I wanted to show my support for them," said Gullit.
The inspirational former PSV Eindhoven and AC Milan player, who was so instrumental in Holland's 1988 Euro success, was touched when he heard how the prisoners on the island felt when he dedicated his awards to them and their struggle. They were the same prisoners who had formed the Makana Football Association on Robben Island, on which FIFA this week conferred honorary membership.
"I've just received some of the most beautiful words. I heard that when I dedicated my award to Nelson Mandela it meant a lot to the prisoners. For them to say that they had heard of me on the island and in fact that they were afraid my award would be taken away from me for political reasons was very special. The most important thing I learnt on Robben Island is that there's always hope and that good always wins over evil. If you believe in yourself and always fight for the right things, eventually you will always succeed in life," said Gullit.
The Dutch legend also revealed how he even took the fight against apartheid onto the pitch with him. "Sam Ramsamy (one of South Africa's most ardent anti-apartheid campaigners and the former head of South Africa's Olympic Committee) once said to me in Holland 'Ruud, there are a lot of people saying you must join them in fighting a lot of things. But what's most important for us is that you continue to play well. That way you will attract attention to our fight against apartheid'. He was right," said Gullit, who is of Surinamese descent.
And he's delighted that in so short a time, South Africa's come full circle, and in 2010 will welcome the world like never before. "When people come to Africa for the World Cup they will see how people should live with each other, blacks and white in harmony. It's different to Europe, which still has whites with blacks in it. South Africa is a black country with whites in it, but it's like a zebra where you wonder 'is it a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes?'. South Africa's a great country and Africa a great continent. It's Africa's first World Cup. I hope everything goes smoothly and that it will go well. I have no doubt it will," said Gullit.