Many professional footballers are dubbed legends. Some are legends in the eyes of their club's supporters, but occasionally some will be revered by an entire country, and indeed the whole footballing world. Lucas 'The Chief' Radebe is such a man.
His Early Years
Radebe was born on 12 April, 1969, in a township in Soweto near the South African city of Johannesburg. One of 11 children, at age 15 Lucas was sent to the bantustan1 of Bophuthatswana. This was mainly for the young man's protection as the townships around Johannesburg were the scenes of many violent clashes during the worst excesses of the apartheid regime. While living in the bantustan, Lucas started to avidly play football2 as a means of entertaining himself and making friends. This was to mark a change in direction for his life as it became apparent that he was a gifted player, and also a great leader on the football pitch. This led to Lucas joining the ICL Birds in the now-defunct Bophuthatswana Soccer League. Playing as a midfielder, Radebe's unquestionable talents led to him being noticed by the scouts of one of South Africa's top clubs, the Kaizer Chiefs3.
Radebe joined the Kaizer Chiefs in 1989 as a midfielder, but was soon moved to a position in which he proved himself to be one of the world's best players, central defence. He soon impressed fellow players, fans and journalists alike. An example of the glowing praise he received is the following report by the journalist Thebe Mabanga:
[Radebe was] 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.
Radebe's skills led to him quickly settling in to life in the top flight, and by 1992 he had been called up to the South African National side. Radebe helped his side to three league titles in 1989, 1991 and 1992, as well as a handful of victories in cup competitions. This success in South Africa led to a move to the English Premier League team Leeds United in 1994 - a move in no small part motivated by a violent event three years previously.
In 1991, Radebe had been out on the streets of Soweto with his brothers, one of his sisters and her baby. As they walked and shopped they heard gunfire, an all too common sound on the streets of South Africa at that time. Unfortunately, this time the gunfire was directed in the young footballer's direction and a bullet hit him in the small of the back and exited through his thigh. As he was rushed to hospital, Radebe claims that the main concern running through his mind was not whether he would live or die, but whether he would be able to play football again. Fortunately, the wound was not too severe and Lucas's career was soon back on track.
Neither the gunman nor the motive for attacking Radebe was ever discovered, although Lucas does harbour suspicions that his assailant was hired to prevent him from leaving the Kaizer Chiefs.
In 1994, Radebe and his team mate Philemon Masinga were brought to England by Howard Wilkinson, then manager of Leeds United. Of the two, Masinga was the player expected to become a star at Leeds, but it was Radebe who would become one of the club's most appreciated players.
Lucas did not enjoy the best of starts to his Elland Road career, however. Despite a solid debut against Mansfield Town in the League Cup, injury and a poor relationship with Wilkinson meant appearances in the Leeds first team were few and far between. After nine months on the sidelines, it was the Home Office which nearly ended Radebe's Leeds career as they refused to renew his work permit. After a successful appeal, Lucas was able to stay in Yorkshire, although he failed to make an impact until Wilkinson was replaced by George Graham for the start of the 1996 - 97 season. Under Graham, Radebe became a first team regular and began to establish himself as a crowd favourite with a string of performances which demonstrated his ability as a footballer.
By the beginning of the 1998 - 99 season, Lucas Radebe was widely recognised one of the top centre-backs in England, and became the first ever South African to be named club captain of a top-flight English team. A new contract awarded to him that season by George Graham's replacement David O'Leary then made him the highest paid South African footballer ever. Under O'Leary, Radebe and Leeds would emerge as serious, albeit perennially unsuccessful, title challengers and a consistent force in European football. The 1999 - 2000 season was Leeds' most successful Premiership season, with the club finishing in third and Radebe being awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award for 2000. Radebe played a few games in the team's Champion's League run of 2000 - 2001, but injuries would keep him out of the team in favour of the new captain, Rio Ferdinand.
Unfortunately, neither Radebe nor Leeds United would win any trophies under O'Leary, and the club entered a period of crisis as his replacement, Terry Venables, took the club from European qualifiers to a team lucky to avoid relegation as Radebe sat out the 2001 - 02 season due to injury. When Leeds finally slipped into the second flight of English football, thanks mainly to the financial mismanagement of the then-chairman Peter Ridsdale, Radebe was one of only three first team players to remain at the club4.
The end of the 2004 - 05 season saw Radebe's retirement, and his ten years of service at Elland Road were rewarded with a testimonial Exhibition game, with the proceeds going to South African children's charities. 37,886 supporters filled Elland Road to see Lucas's testimonial - one of the highest gates of the season. A past and present 'Leeds United XI' featuring current and ex-Leeds players, Hollywood actor Vinnie Jones and Leeds Ladies5 striker Lucy Ward took on a Lucas Radebe International XI featuring such footballing luminaries as Bruce Grobbelaar, Jay Jay Okocha and Mario Melchiot. Radebe himself played 45 minutes for each team, and scored twice in a match that the Leeds XI lost 7 - 3. The Chief's final appearance in a Leeds United shirt came a week later in a Football League Championship game against Rotherham United.
In contrast to his eventful, yet ultimately trophyless time at Leeds United, Radebe would see the South African football team go from international outcasts to one of the strongest teams in African football.
After the 1976 Soweto uprising, South Africa had been expelled from FIFA due to the racism endemic to the country6, but as apartheid began to be dismantled, a new multicultural South African side was welcomed back to the international fold in 1992 with a match against Cameroon. Radebe was one of the black South Africans to make his debut in this game, showing to the world that times were changing in sport, as well as in South African society.
Over the next eleven years Lucas would represent his country seventy times before playing his final game in 2003 against England. During that period South Africa won their first major trophy - the African Nations Cup in 1996 - and qualified for two FIFA World Cups.
Off the Pitch
Even before his retirement, Radebe worked tirelessly to rid football of racism. He was a key player in the English Football Association's 'Kick it Out' campaign and received the FIFA Fair Play Award for his contribution to ridding football of racism and his diligent work with South African children. He was also appointed as FIFA's ambassador for the SOS Children's Villages initiative.
In 2004, Lucas was voted as the 54th Greatest South African in a poll for the SABC3 television channel. However, perhaps his greatest accolade would come from a truly great man: on a visit to Leeds former South African president Mr Nelson Mandela told an assembled crowd that 'This [Lucas Radebe] is my hero'. Praise doesn't come much higher than that.