Ruud Gullit reflects on dedicating his Ballon d'Or to Nelson Mandela
By Ruud Gullit
The Ballon d’Or will be announced on October 30 – and there’s only one choice for an honour that changed my life when I won it 36 years ago.
There is only one possible winner of the Ballon d’Or this year – and the name is very familiar. Lionel Messi has held that special prize aloft seven times already, and earlier in 2023 he won the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Paris.
Last year, this footballer who had won almost everything had one outstanding goal: the World Cup. He had come close before, but nine years after losing in the final, and at the age of 35, he achieved that goal.
Sometimes even in a team sport, it’s clear than one player makes the difference, and at the 2022 World Cup Messi did for Argentina exactly what Diego Maradona did in 1986. He took the team by the hand and led them to glory.
So, what changed? Did Messi suddenly become a leader? No, he has been that for some time – going back to his Barcelona days. But that was a little different – he was already a star, a multiple Ballon d’Or winner and the best player in the world, but that ship had more than one captain. In Qatar, there was no doubt who was in charge.
Despite everything he had already won, what Messi did at the World Cup changed his life – it changed how he will be remembered – and that is true also of my Ballon d’Or year.
1987 was an extraordinary year in my life. When it started, I was playing in Holland, mostly at centre-back. By the time it ended, I was the world’s most expensive footballer, playing in midfield for Milan and dedicating my Ballon d’Or to a political prisoner.
I scored a lot of goals – something like 15 – as a centre-back for PSV that year. Then, towards the end of the 1986-87 season, I played as a striker and scored another 10 as we won the Eredivisie.
Then, one day, I was called into the Philips offices in Eindhoven – the Philips corporation is the ‘P’ in PSV and its workers founded the club – and there was Silvio Berlusconi, then the new president of Milan.
‘Okay… what’s going on?’ I asked. ‘I think you’re coming to Milan,’ he replied.
And just like that, I was moving to Italy, breaking the transfer record that Maradona had set three years earlier when he joined Napoli from Barcelona.
Even though I won the Ballon d’Or that year, I remember that first season in Italy being very tough. The rules allowed each club to have three foreign players and because Serie A was the most powerful league in the world at that time, every team had three world-class overseas players. The level was incredibly high.
Milan would eventually win the 1987-88 Serie A title, beating Maradona’s Napoli, and in the middle of it, I won the Ballon d’Or. My God, it was like I was in heaven.
At that time, I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in Holland. Because of the historical ties between South Africa and Holland, it was an issue that we talked about. There were concerts – reggae was my music – and songs about Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid campaigner beaten to death by state security officers, and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.
And so, I dedicated the Ballon d’Or to Nelson Mandela. In Italy, a lot of people didn’t even know his name, let alone the story of his continued imprisonment. For a footballer to make that statement, it started a conversation in Italy. It became a huge thing, but it had seemed normal for me, as this was a cause I was part of. I saw it as a human statement, not a political one.
Dedicating my award to Mandela was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it eventually gave me the chance to meet him on many occasions, both in Holland and South Africa, which was a great privilege and honour. I spoke to him about his time in prison, and he told me that he had heard about the dedication. It gave me goosebumps.
He said to me: “I was afraid they would take the Ballon d’Or from you.” He had become so used to oppression in South Africa that he thought I would be punished for what I said on his behalf.
Mandela had an aura, a warmth that made him different. He represented something far greater than himself. He was able to forgive people for what they did, he saw this as a pathway to a better future, where people in his country could live together in peace. That takes a special person, and a humble one.
Today, my work as a Member of the Laureus World Sports Academy continues my connection with Mandela, who gave Laureus its mission as its founding patron in 2000, when he said that “sport has the power to change the world”.
He has been a personal inspiration to me, and I’m proud to represent an organisation that has been guided from its inception by those words. I hope that he would be proud of the work we have done since then, reaching hundreds of thousands of children and young people all over the world, every year, and changing their lives through sport.
I know that he changed my life. And it all began with the Ballon d’Or.