Lucas Radebe grew up as one of 11 children in a tough part of Soweto during one of the most violent times under apartheid. That he went on to became one of the English Premier League’s most respected players – and South Africa’s most-capped footballer, with 70 appearances for Bafana Bafana – is in many ways a miracle.
Radebe rose to prominence when he was appointed captain of Leeds United in the English Premiership in 1998, taking charge of a team filled with promising youngsters and some veterans. Under his leadership, the Yorkshire club went on to become the force in English football it once had been.
Radebe’s contribution was two-fold: leadership and performance. He was recognised as one of the finest defenders in the Premier League, and earned universal respect from players and fans.
That status was light years removed from his upbringing. Growing up in Diepkloof Zone Four in Soweto township outside Johannesburg, Radebe was regularly witness to violent incidents.
At the age of 15 his parents sent him to Bophuthatswana, one of the “homelands” of the apartheid state. He played soccer to keep himself busy – starting out as a goalkeeper before moving to midfield – and joined the ICL Birds in the now-defunct Bophuthatswana Soccer League.
His breakthrough came in 1989, when talent scouts spotted him and signed him up to play for one of Africa’s most glamorous clubs, Kaizer Chiefs.
Thebe Mabanga, in the Mail & Guardian, writes that South African fans remember Radebe in his Kaizer Chiefs days as “a lanky, flamboyant central midfielder who switched to central defence with ease, snuffing out any opposition threat with exquisite, acrobatic scissor kicks and diving headers, and man-marking the most lethal strikers into silence”.
When the chance to move to England came up in 1994, Radebe grabbed the opportunity with both hands – his decision influenced in part by an incident that had taken place three years previously.
Radebe had been on his way to do some shopping for his mother, accompanied by his brothers, one of his sisters and her baby. While walking along the street, they heard gunfire, but didn’t pay it much attention because, says Radebe: “In Soweto you heard shots all the time”.
Next thing he felt a pain in his back. Then he saw the blood, and his left leg went limp. His at first thought was that he would never play soccer again.
Radebe was rushed to hospital. Amazingly, nothing vital had been damaged; the bullet had entered his back and exited halfway down his thigh. To this day he does not know who shot him, but suspects that someone was hired to shoot him rather than allow him to switch clubs.
In September 1994, Radebe and Philemon “Chippa” Masinga moved to Leeds United. Radebe, sold by Kaizer Chiefs for ₤250 000, was only included in the deal to keep Masinga happy; as it turned out, he became the more valuable investment.
Leeds coach Howard Wilkinson quickly recognised Radebe’s excellent physical attributes and quickly moved him from midfield to centre half.
Radebe struggled early on in his English career, partly due to injuries, partly because he did not see eye-to-eye with the manager. When Wilkinson was fired, George Graham took over the reins and gave the South African star a chance to blossom. It was the opportunity Radebe had been waiting for.
“The Chief”, as Leeds fans dubbed him, quickly established himself as a player to be reckoned with. He showed an excellent understanding of the game, strong tackling, fine man-to-man marking, and had a calming influence on his teammates. Graham appointed Radebe captain for the 1998/99 season.
Graham left Elland Road in October 1998, to be replaced by David O’Leary. The new manager’s first request to the club’s board was to secure the services of Radebe for the rest of his career. O’Leary had served as Graham’s assistant, and understood just how much the South African captain brought to the Yorkshire club.
“Lucas should be set in stone and never allowed to leave”, O’Leary said.
The Chief signed a four-year contract, and went on to prove himself a major success. In 1998/99 Leeds finished fourth in the Premiership, qualifying for the Uefa Cup. The following season they finished third in England and qualified for the higher profile, more lucrative Champions League. Surprising many, the Yorkshire club made it through to the semi-finals.
Radebe picked up a knee injury in 2000, and subsequent knee and ankle injuries kept him sidelined for the better part of two years.
In 2002, he fought his way back into the game, and after four matches for Leeds’ reserves, led South Africa for the second time at the World Cup finals.
Radebe first played for South Africa in 1992, when the country returned to international football after decades of apartheid-enforced isolation, and was part of South Africa’s 1996 African Nations Cup-winning side.
Former national coach Clive Barker, who guided South Africa to victory in the 1996 African Cup of Nations, fondly recalls Bafana Bafana’s 3-0 victory over Ghana in the semi-finals.
In the lead-up to the tournament, Radebe had been in a battle to overcome a severe knee injury, yet he urged Barker to include him and let him mark the opposition’s best attacker. Against Ghana, it meant Radebe would mark Tony Yeboah.
‘The greatest game’
Yeboah was recognised as one of the best in the world at the time, but, as Barker points out, apart from one stupid pass inside the first 10 minutes, when Radebe gave the ball away to Yeboah, the Ghanaian ace didn’t get a look-in.
“It’s probably the greatest game I have ever seen a South African soccer player play,” reckons Barker.
Six years and many injuries later, and Radebe was outstanding once more at the World Cup in Korea and Japan in 2002, his timely interceptions, tackles and intelligent reading of the game frustrating the opposition attack time and again.
Bafana Bafana may not have progressed beyond the first round, but five goals, one win, one draw and a losing 3-2 thriller against Spain, one of the pre-tournament favourites, was a big step up from the team’s disappointing showing in France in 1998.
In Bafana Bafana’s final game of the tournament, Radebe scored a stunning goal, heading in off the back post from a corner to level matters with Spain. South Africa lost the match, but finally won the respect of the football world – Radebe’s mission was complete.
Off the field
Radebe’s contribution on the field of play extended way beyond the conventional boundaries for South African and African footballers. His success had a lot to do with making players from Africa more marketable; now every Premiership scout is searching for the next Lucas Radebe.
He also acts as a Fifa ambassador for SOS Children’s Villages, and has helped to combat racism in soccer. In 2000 he was honoured with the Fifa Fair Play Award for his efforts to rid the sport of racism, as well as for his work with young children in South Africa.
“Lucas is not only a fantastic and fair player on the field, but also has a great personality off the pitch, with a big heart for the children of the world”, said Fifa chairman Antonio Matarrese.
Said Radebe: “Football has played an important part in uniting races in South Africa, and that is one of the best things I have done.”
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