BIO & STORY
“THIS IS MY HERO”
– NELSON MANDELA
Lucas Radebe is one of South Africa’s greatest ever footballers. He is a sporting icon in South Africa and has achieved a legendary status with his English team Leeds United F.C.
Lucas is known for his talent, his courage, his warm personality, his willingness to work for others and his loyalty. His story – a boy born in Diepkloof, Soweto in apartheid-era South Africa to becoming captain of an English Premier League team and his country – is inspirational and moving.
CHAPTERS OF HIS STORY
When, in 2010, the Professional Footballers’ Association marked Lucas Radebe’s career with their Special Merit Award, he joined a list of legendary recipients of the honour that includes Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Tom Finney, Sir Matt Busby, Sir Stanley Matthews, Pele, Brian Clough, Eusebio, Sir Bobby Robson, George Best and Sir Alex Ferguson.
During the ceremony, a letter from the Nelson Mandela Foundation was read out: ‘As captain of Bafana Bafana and throughout his distinguished career playing for Leeds United in England, Lucas has always upheld the highest values of sportsmanship and fair play, combined with sporting excellence.
‘His celebrity has always been used to great effect, supporting charitable initiatives both at home and in the UK. South Africa is very proud of the achievements of Lucas Radebe.’
It was one of many glowing tributes to a man who had captured the hearts of people on two continents with his talent, his courage, his warm personality, his willingness to work for others and his loyalty.
What was most remarkable about these tributes is that when Lucas was born on 12 April 1969 in Diepkloof4, Johannesburg, his future achievements were quite simply impossible.
When the fourth of Johannes and Emily Radebe’s ten children was born, South Africa was a country torn apart by strife. The majority black population, their leaders locked away on Robben Island, yearned for the freedoms denied to them by the apartheid regime of the white minority. They were heavily-restricted, second-class citizens and the ruling class certainly didn’t take pride in their achievements.
Lucas grew up in the family’s overcrowded, four-room house, a tall, skinny, nervous kid who could run like the wind. From his father he inherited a sense of humour and self-discipline. From his mother a love of sport and a work ethic.
He played football whenever he could find a spare moment. Sometimes it was with rolled up socks for a ball on bone-hard waste ground, with far more than 11 on each side. But already Lucas was showing skill combined with courage that saw him quickly shrug off cuts and bruises and return to the fray. Soon people started to notice the kid who played with his tongue sticking out in concentration and he became a regular member of his school teams.
He joined Diepkloof Wolf Wanderers and in matches against other township teams came up against youngsters like John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu and Doctor Khumalo who would one day play alongside him in the national team. But such an idea didn’t cross their minds at that stage. Football was their passion but it offered few prospects because South Africa was excluded from all international sport.
Like most teenagers, Lucas became involved in the anti-apartheid demonstrations with his fellow Comrades, frustrated that negotiations towards majority rule seemed to make no progress. Sometimes it led to scary local turf-wars. It was a harsh, dangerous time. Almost every Sunday was marked by the funerals of young protesters. Many of Lucas’s friends were arrested. Some died in clashes with the police and military.
Fearing for their son in this increasingly hazardous environment, Emily and Johannes sent him away to school in Bophuthatswana, one of the ‘homelands’ created to the north of Johannesburg. It was to change his life forever.
3. FACING THE LIONS
It took Lucas a year to break into the Amakhosi team but it was a year well spent, learning his trade under coach Augusto Palacios, a former World Cup player with Peru. When his chance came to make his debut, against Bush Bucks, Lucas was ready. The fans quickly took notice of the composed newcomer when he did a brilliant marking job on the great Jomo Sono in only his second match.
He scored his first goal against Wits and quickly grew in stature as the Chiefs went on to lift the Castle Cup. To his delight Lucas was given the best player award and spent the R10,000 prize on helping the family extend the house in Diepkloof.
Apart from needing extra bedrooms, there was going to be a need for somewhere to put all his medals! Chiefs won the BP Cup Final and went on to clinch the league championship with Lucas drawing more and more praise from journalists and the fans.
Things were changing rapidly in South Africa. Negotiations to release Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years finally bore fruit on 11 February 1990, when he strode to freedom hand in hand with his wife Winnie and in front of the world’s TV cameras. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Pressure was soon applied on sporting authorities to lift their sanctions and allow South Africa back into world sport. Cricket and rugby union led the way with the first football international since 1954 finally arriving on a wet evening in Durban on 7 July 1992.
Lucas and his proud team-mates lined up to face the ‘Indomitable Lions’ of Cameroon, a side that only two years before had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Doctor Khumalo scored the only goal to give the home side a dream return to the big time. Two days later Cameroon got their revenge and the third match in the series was an honourable 2-2 draw. Lucas had played in all three games.
Suddenly the prospects for a footballer looked very different. Chiefs hosted a match against English league side Crystal Palace, pitting Lucas against young Palace goalkeeper Nigel Martyn, who was later to become a firm friend. And with the arrival of sides from around the world, came scouts looking for local talent they could lure away.
As one of the country’s brightest stars, Lucas was on the scouts’ radar but any thoughts he might have had of moving abroad were halted when he jumped into his car with his brother Lazarus and some friends to go and buy cold drinks for his mother.
Lucas had only driven a few hundred yards when he heard the crack of gunfire. It was a while before he realised that he had been hit. He was bleeding and his leg was going numb. Lazarus took the wheel and raced to the nearest hospital where surgeons told Lucas how fortunate he had been – the bullet had entered his back and come out through his thigh but somehow had missed vital organs and bones.
No-one knows to this day whether Lucas was the target of a rival team’s fan, someone with a grudge from his turf-war days, or just the unlucky victim of a random shooting. But it turned out that being out of action when Besiktas scouts came to Johannesburg, cost him a move to play in Turkey.
But he didn’t have to wait long for interest from elsewhere.
5. CHAMPIONS OF AFRICA
Added to the pain from the tear in his knee was the doubt in Lucas’s mind whether Leeds would stick by him over a long injury, even doubt that he could recover from an injury that had ended several careers. And there was the agonising thought that he would probably miss playing in the African Cup of Nations finals which were to be staged in South Africa the following January.
His normally optimistic outlook was not helped when he realised that during the summer, Leeds United would be playing in a tournament in South Africa and he was to be left behind in Yorkshire receiving treatment.
The gradual progress from removing the thigh-to-ankle plaster, to a few tentative laps of the Elland Road pitch, to running up and down the concrete steps in the stadium, to starting to twist and turn and finally being able to kick a football again took months and was filled with aches and setbacks. But Lucas applied himself and he was a month ahead of schedule when, in November, he returned to action for 45 minutes in the reserves.
The African Cup of Nations was now only a few weeks away but the trademark smile had returned to Lucas’s face and he drove himself even harder. He finally made it back into the first team three days after Christmas 1995. It was only for 112 seconds but it persuaded Bafana coach Clive Barker that Leeds felt Lucas was ready to resume his career.
Howard Wilkinson wasn’t so sure. At first he refused to release Lucas for the South Africa squad but after long, agonising negotiations he relented on condition that Clive Barker eased Lucas gradually into the fray and sent him back to Leeds at the first sign of any recurrence of the injury.
True to his word, Barker left Lucas in the stands as Bafana started the tournament with a win over Cameroon. He sent him on for the final 13 minutes of the victory over Angola and finally put him in the starting line-up to face Egypt, taking him off after 76 minutes in a 1-0 defeat.
Lucas was feeling no ill-effects and the game time had shaken off his physical ring rustiness and sharpened his tackling and reading of the game. He was ready for the climax of a tournament that had gripped the whole of South Africa’s imagination.
A tighter than expected quarter-final win over Algeria set up a semi-final with Ghana. The two best teams in the competition head to head and Lucas pitted against his prolific Leeds team-mate Tony Yeboah.
A rare mistake by Lucas gave the Ghanaian striker a golden chance to put his side in front but uncharacteristically he fluffed it. It was a game-changing moment. From then on Bafana dominated and ran out 3-0 winners with two goals from John Moshoeu and one from Shaun Bartlett. ‘My heart stopped when Yebbo intercepted my pass,’ Lucas recalled later, adding with a smile: ‘But I stuck so close to him for the rest of the match, he didn’t get a kick. Ghana were the best side in Africa at the time, but we played them off the pitch.’
There was now no stopping the home team. Mark Williams grabbed the glory with both goals as the hosts beat Tunisia 2-0 in front of almost 100,000 people packed into Soccer City. President Mandela, dressed in a Bafana shirt, handed over the trophy to Neil Tovey and the Rainbow Nation started to party.
Lucas and Philemon were due to fly back to Leeds the following morning but there was no chance that would happen. Lucas turned off his phone so no one in Leeds could remind him about the flight and set about enjoying a memorable occasion. He knew it would mean a dressing down when he finally arrived back at Elland Road, but it was worth it to be part of the team crowned as champions of Africa.
7. BAFANA’S FIRST WORLD CUP
There was a lot of work to do before Lucas could start to think about leading his country out in the World Cup finals for the first time in their history.
With the ebullient Jomo Sono in temporary charge, South Africa made a spirited defence of their African Cup of Nations title in Burkina Faso, only falling at the final hurdle when they went down 2-0 to Egypt. But they had again done their nation proud. The players were enjoying life under Sono and wanted to him to stay.
Back in England, Leeds were improving all the time and headed for fifth place in the league and a place in European competition the following season. To crown a memorable few months, Lucas was voted the United’s Player of the Year. Supporters Club secretary, Eric Carlile, said: ‘Lucas is one of those players who always turns up at our functions and he is a very popular character with the fans, and a deserving winner of the award.’
The South African FA had decided to stick with their original appointment of Philippe Troussier as national manager. The Frenchman had plenty of experience of African players having coached Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, as well as a spell at Kaizer Chiefs just before Lucas left for Leeds.
But many of the players didn’t appreciate his strict disciplinary methods after the relaxed approach of Sono, and there was tension in the camp from the start. He only had a short time to get his ideas across before the start of the World Cup in France and Lucas quickly found himself acting as the buffer between a driven manager and unhappy players.
After an unconvincing build up, Bafana finally arrived in France and were delighted with the reception they received in Vichy. It was one of the proudest moments of Lucas’s career when he led the team out for their opening match against the host nation. Every South African chest swelled with pride as the strains of ‘N’kosi Sikolel’ iAfrika’ filled the stadium.
France, with stars like world player of the year Zinedine Zidane in their line-up, were a formidable opponent and would go on to win the trophy. Bafana were humbled by a 3-0 loss. The key match would be the second, against Denmark. If they could win that, they could still reach the knock out stages.
The Danes grabbed an early goal, but Bafana fought back with Benni McCarthy scoring the equaliser, his country’s first World Cup finals goal. Just before the end Quinton Fortune’s fierce shot cracked against the bar and his side had to settle for a draw.
There was still a chance that Bafana could qualify but things weren’t helped when two players broke curfew and Troussier sent them home. South Africa had to beat Saudi Arabia while France beat Denmark and between them overcome Bafana’s four goal inferior goal difference. It was a tall order and even though they dominated Saudi Arabia they could only manage a 2-2 draw.
The warm welcome from the ever-loyal Bafana fans when they returned to Johannesburg helped ease the disappointment of not reaching the knock-out stages. And Lucas was about to be given a massive personal boost – he was named as the new captain of Leeds United.
9. AMBASSADOR FOR FAIR PLAY
The 1999-2000 season started with Lucas leading South Africa out in a match staged to mark Nelson Mandela’s retirement as president. Madiba’s life was an inspiration to Lucas and he was proud to be chosen as one of the people to mark the great man’s achievements.
As a new millennium approached, there was a feeling that a new era was dawning at Leeds United, perhaps one that would bear comparison with the club’s most successful period under Don Revie in the 1960s and 70s.
At Christmas they were top of the Premiership and going well in the UEFA Cup, a run that included a goal to be added to Lucas’s folklore, hooking the ball into Partizan Belgrade’s net despite having tumbled to the ground in his rush to get to Ian Harte’s free-kick.
Under Lucas’s captaincy Bafana again reached the final of the African Cup of Nations, having beaten joint hosts Ghana in the semi-final despite having Eric Tinkler sent off. But they paid a price for the extra effort they had to put into that game in the final against Nigeria, the other host nation. The Super Eagles scored after only 40 seconds on the way to a 2-0 win.
Leeds knocked the mighty Roma out of the UEFA Cup with Lucas dominating the action to such a degree that Roma boss Fabio Capello later tried to sign him. But United’s hopes of European glory ended in controversial semi-final that was played in the shadow of two Leeds fans being stabbed to death in the streets of Istanbul. Football was suddenly secondary as Lucas, his team-mates and thousands of fans paid tribute at Elland Road, which was strewn with flowers and team colours.
United finished third in the league, earning a place in the prestigious Champions League the following season. Drawn in one of the toughest groups, things started badly with a 4-0 defeat by Barcelona in the Nou Camp stadium. To make matters worse for Lucas he ended the night in hospital with concussion after a clash of heads with team-mate Michael Duberry.
A second sickening clash of heads, this time with Spurs’ Les Ferdinand, saw Lucas out of action for several games but he managed to convince the doctors to let him play in the vital Champions League clash with A C Milan and produced a man of the match display to ensure Leeds reached the second group stage.
Now 30 years old, Lucas knew he had to work even harder to maintain his fitness and form and realised his place in the Leeds line-up, which had been virtually automatic for the past couple of years, was under threat when the club paid a record £18m for Rio Ferdinand.
Lucas was determined to fight for his place – he and Leeds had come a long way together and he wanted to enjoy the fruits of all that effort and dedication. He was boosted in December 2000 when the game’s governing body FIFA gave him their Fair Play Award. It is a prize usually given to associations, clubs or groups of supporters and only occasionally to individual players.
Dr Antonio Matarrese, the chairman of FIFA’s committee for Security and Fair Play, handed over the gold statuette and said: ‘The choice of Lucas Radebe for this year’s award serves a dual purpose. He is not only a fantastic and fair player on the field, but also a great personality off the pitch, with a big heart for the children in the world. He is a real ambassador for Fair Play for our youth and all footballers.’
11. A WORLD CUP GOAL 2002
With the World Cup finals only a few weeks away, Lucas finally persuaded the Leeds United physios he was ready to play again. He managed three reserve games, after which in each he woke up hardly able to get out of bed. And he happily took part in Gary Kelly’s testimonial match.
It wasn’t much but it was enough to persuade Jomo Sono, back in charge of Bafana, to give Lucas the chance to prove himself in the build-up matches. ‘He is such a good player and very inspirational. If he is fully fit for all the games then Lucas will be my World Cup captain,’ Sono announced.
Lucas knew this would be his last chance to play on football’s biggest stage. ‘I am hoping I can put my recent injuries behind me, put on a good show and represent my country with honour,’ he said.
South Africa came back from 2-0 down to earn a point against Paraguay and were disappointed to only beat Slovenia 1-0 after dominating throughout. It was their first World Cup finals victory but the toughest test was to come against Spain. They needed at least a draw to be sure of reaching the second stage.
Twice Spain edged in front only to be pegged back, the second time with a Lucas header. But Spain grabbed a late winner, leaving Bafana level on points and goal difference with Paraguay. But the South Americans had scored one more goal and went through while Bafana went home.
The team received another rapturous reception when they arrived in South Africa. Lucas, greeted with the chants of Rhoo! that dated back to his time at Kaizer Chiefs, said: ‘Playing in the World Cup was one of the greatest footballing experiences in my life. What made it really special was that deep down I never really thought I would be fit enough to play out there.’
When he returned to Leeds, he acknowledged his debt to the medical team who had worked so hard over those countless, painful hours. He presented each of them with special gifts, including giving the shirt in which he had scored his World Cup goal to Leeds’ head physio Dave Hancock.
Sadly, he would again be spending a great deal of time with that medical team over the next couple of years, unable to do much to help as Leeds went into free-fall. By now it was clear the club had overstretched themselves financially and as players were sold to try to balance the books, first David O’Leary went, then his replacement Terry Venables and then chairman Peter Ridsdale.
Lucas forced his painful legs on to the pitch whenever he could – after one match when Peter Reid took over as manager, Dave Hancock reported, ‘he was incredible, never shirking a tackle, putting his body on the line. Afterwards his ankle was like an elephant’s hoof but he was still smiling.’
Lucas proudly brought his Bafana career to an end, captaining the side against England in Durban in a match that went a long way to convincing football’s authorities that South Africa was ready to host the World Cup.
He managed only a handful of games as Leeds slipped out of the top flight of English football and when they started life in the second tier, he turned in a match against Wolverhampton Wanderers and screamed in agony. He had ruptured his Achilles tendon. Surely that would be the last time Leeds fans would see their hero they knew as the Chief?
2. AMAKHOSI CALLS
While Lucas was relieved to be away from the growing violence in Diepkloof and neighbouring townships, he had to admit he found life in Bophuthatswana a little too quiet for his taste. He missed his family and friends. At home there was always something to do but, apart from his work at school in Lehurutshe, there was little to amuse a teenager with plenty of energy.
Fortunately the coach of the local football favourites, ICL Birds United, thought he had enough talent to allow him to train with the team and Lucas quickly impressed. His first chance of a game came when they needed a goalkeeper at short notice. It wasn’t his preferred position but he’d played in goal before and he grabbed the chance, marking his debut by saving two penalties.
He soon signed semi-professional forms for the Birds – on strict instructions from his family that he mustn’t neglect his studies – and became a regular in the team. Again he was noted for his bravery – he played on for 70 minutes in a Castle Cup semi-final despite taking a boot in the face that broke several of his teeth and had blood pouring from a gash in his tongue. He had to take a liquid diet through a straw for a week, but the Birds were in the final.
When the opportunity came to switch to central defence, Lucas showed he was even better there than between the posts, and he was voted the league’s Footballer of the Year and played an ‘international’ for Bophuthatswana against South Africa.
His growing reputation soon came to the attention of ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, who took a look and recommended Lucas to Kaizer Chiefs. Amakhosi, the biggest club in South Africa, wanted to sign him! This was a major decision. There was no promise of a secure future in football, and both Lucas and his parents thought he would be better advised to stick to the safer plan to become a geography teacher.
But Chiefs’ owner Kaizer Motaung wouldn’t be thwarted in his attempts to sign Lucas. He pleaded with Lucas’s parents and phoned Lucas several times. He pointed out that he could continue his studies and play for Chiefs. ‘Just come for a trial,’ he said. ‘What harm could that do?’ Lucas couldn’t think of a reason to say no and before long he was signing for the Chiefs. He was 20 years old and a fully-fledged professional footballer.
4. WHERE IS LEEDS?
Democracy finally came to South Africa in April 1994. It was a day many had thought they would never see and Lucas and his family queued proudly to vote President Mandela and his ANC party into power.
Lucas took part in the match arranged to celebrate President Mandela’s swearing into office. The President arrived late but went into the dressing room at half time with the score between South Africa and their opponents, Zambia, 0-0. His pep talk obviously worked, because South Africa scored twice within 90 seconds of the restart. Madiba magic had been born.
Rumours were flying that Lucas was the target of several clubs in Europe and South America. He missed South Africa’s matches in Australia because of injury, not knowing that Leeds United scout Geoff Sleight had made the trip especially to watch him for a second time. But Sleight decided he’d seen enough anyway and recommended that Howard Wilkinson should sign both Lucas and his international team-mate Philemon Masinga.
Lucas was delighted to get a move to a big club in England, even if he wasn’t sure exactly where Leeds was! He was less impressed when he arrived and experienced the weather and English food. He eventually got used to the climate but never the food.
From being one of the most highly rated players in South Africa, playing in front of large crowds, Lucas found himself as an also-ran at Leeds, struggling to make an impression in a very different environment and different style of playing. The frustration added to his feelings of homesickness and he spent a small fortune feeding coins into a pay phone just so he could hear the voices of his family.
He finally made his debut against Mansfield in the Coca Cola Cup in front of Elland Road’s lowest crowd for 32 years. He came on as a sub for Gordon Strachan to try and plug a struggling defence but couldn’t prevent a shock defeat.
Leeds, who had been champions only a couple of years before, were struggling and Lucas was in and out of the team, finding it hard to settle. He longed to return home but knew that if he quit he might never get another chance. And it might lead to clubs writing off all players from South Africa. He had to stick it out.
Towards the end of his first season, he seemed to be making some progress. He’d been picked for ten games in a row, mainly out of position at fullback or in midfield. Then, finally in March, given a rare chance in central defence against Coventry, he picked up an injury and was stretchered off.
The specialist looked grave when he told Lucas he had ruptured the cruciate ligaments in his right knee. He would certainly be out of action until Christmas and it might even be career threatening.
6. THE CHIEF
It was something of an anti-climax to return to Leeds after the heady days of the African Cup of Nations, especially as Lucas was still struggling to establish himself as a first-team regular.
There was the excitement of reaching the final of the Coca-Cola Cup and playing at Wembley, one of the most famous arenas in the world. But even that didn’t turn out as hoped. Leeds played poorly, and lost to Aston Villa.
Discontented fans were calling for change. Nevertheless they took Lucas to their hearts when he was twice called upon to take over in goal, against Middlesbrough and then Manchester United, and performed heroically.
It was an unhappy camp and Lucas had started to believe that his future would probably lie elsewhere but a chance meeting with fellow countryman Gary Blumberg persuaded him to wait and see how the following season developed. Blumberg was a sports lawyer who had heard there were about to be developments at Elland Road that could possibly be to Lucas’ benefit. It was the start of a friendship and business relationship, sealed with nothing more than a handshake, which still endures today.
The predicted change of ownership at Leeds also brought a change of manager following a 4-0 defeat by Manchester United. Two days after Howard Wilkinson was shown the door, George Graham, who had led Arsenal to two Championships and League Cup, FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup triumphs, took over.
Renowned for the way he organised his defences, Graham could teach Lucas a lot, as could the new assistant manager and ex-Arsenal defender David O’Leary. Graham heartened Lucas by saying that everyone in the squad started with a clean slate and in a defensive drill on the new manager’s first training session, the South African international made sure the men he was marking didn’t get a kick.
As Lucas grew in confidence over the next few training sessions, absorbing and applying the advice from Graham and O’Leary, he gradually convinced his new bosses that he deserved a regular place. So impressed was Graham, he started to use Lucas as a man-to-man marker, shutting out the danger of brilliant individuals like Matt Le Tissier, Gianfranco Zola, Paul Merson and Steve McManaman.
Leeds weren’t the most exciting team in the league but they were solid at the back and Lucas was happy to be considered an important part of that. His consistency and performances were rewarded with a new, improved contract. ‘Lucas loved the art of defending,’ Graham said. ‘He gave centre-forwards nothing. He was up there with the best.’
Back home, Clive Barker had also heard that his star defender was playing even better, and just before an historic clash with England at Old Trafford in the build-up to the World Cup in France, Barker announced that Lucas would take over as captain of Bafana Bafana.
South Africa gave a good account of themselves against England, only losing to a goal from Ian Wright put in with his hand. That was soon forgotten as victories over Zambia and Congo confirmed that Bafana would make their World Cup finals debut in France in the Summer of 1998.
8. CLUB V COUNTRY
Lucas was surprised but thrilled when George Graham called him into the office and offered him the captain’s armband. The Leeds manager said: ‘Making Lucas captain will show the confidence I have in him and how much I rate him.’
Lucas couldn’t have been happier. He threw himself into his duties on the pitch but also supporting the club’s community programme as well as his appointment as the FIFA Ambassador to SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa.
The only cloud on the horizon was a rumour that Graham was being chased by Tottenham Hotspur and was keen to return to London. Sure enough the day after Leeds scraped through their UEFA tie with Maritimo on penalties, the Scot said his farewells and headed to White Hart Lane.
Newspapers were full of stories that Lucas would be Graham’s first signing for Spurs. Lucas felt great loyalty to Leeds but Graham had played an enormous part in his progress so it would be tempting. It depended on who Leeds chose as their new manager. After a few weeks uncertainty, they promoted assistant manager David O’Leary and Lucas sighed with relief. He was a man he could work with. He wouldn’t have to move.
O’Leary, the man who had given Lucas his Leeds nickname ‘The Chief’, quickly moved to kill any ideas that his captain would move to Spurs, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool who were all showing interest. ‘He should never be allowed to leave,’ the Irishman said. ‘Lucas has no bigger supporter than me’ and he backed up the words with a lucrative new contract that Lucas gladly signed.
One thing Lucas never quite managed to conquer was his fear of flying but because of his loyalty to both Leeds and South Africa, he found he was having to sit through more and more nervy take-offs and landings. He pushed his body to the point of exhaustion on occasions in order to play for both teams, never more so than in February 1999 when he played for Leeds in London on the Wednesday, won his 50th cap in Pretoria that Saturday then flew back and played for United in Leicester on the Monday – three games in six days on two continents.
For the next few seasons, Lucas would be caught in a series of arguments between his club and his country over which should have priority. Neither seemed to take his well-being into consideration, only concerned about having one of the world’s greatest defenders in their line-up. Lucas accepted the burden with a smile and pushed himself harder and harder to make sure he didn’t let either down.
By now he was the experienced rock at the heart of two young and exciting teams and he was relishing the role.
10. THIS IS MY HERO
It looked as though Lucas had won his battle to stay a first team regular when his partnership with Rio Ferdinand became David O’Leary’s first choice as Leeds continued to surprise teams with their performances in the Premiership and the Champions League.
But during a typically masterful display against Real Madrid in the Bernebeu Stadium, Lucas caught his studs in the turf and damaged his battle-scarred right knee. It was the first of a series of injuries that were to blight the latter part of his career.
He fought his way back to fitness in less than a month but on his return to the team against Sunderland he injured the other knee. He tried to play on because there was no cover on the bench but the knee was too badly damaged. He needed surgery again. His season was finished and he missed the Champions League semi-final and that summer’s African Cup of Nations.
The only bright spot in an anxious time was the visit of Nelson Mandela to Leeds. Lucas was asked to help greet the president and was buoyed by the warm welcome the massive crowd gave him as he waited for Madiba’s arrival. The bond between him and the people of his second home never ceased to amaze him.
What was even more surprising and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up was a moment at the official function at the Leeds City Council Town Hall. As Madiba made his way to the to address the packed Town Hall during a standing ovation, the President noticed Lucas there and stopped to embrace him. ‘Here is my hero,’ Madiba said.
Lucas’s knee was taking a long time to recover, partly because in the past he had played through the pain barrier in order to help the team. Leeds legend Peter Lorimer acknowledged this when Lucas eventually returned to training: ‘He has had a knee problem for some time but he kept on playing because there was nobody else in the side to take his place. He put the club’s needs before his own and that shows what kind of lad he is,’ the Scot said.
Before Lucas could force his way back into the first team he suffered another setback, damaging his ankle ligaments in a reserve match against Sunderland. Many feared this could be the end of his career.
The pain and despair were made worse by the fact that there were early signs that all was not well at Elland Road. The club had been turned upside down by a drawn-out trial involving Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate after two young men were attacked in the streets of Leeds. The team had not been performing as well as the season before, and their expensively-assembled team had been built with Champions League football in mind.
The club he loved was on the slide and there was little he could do with his injury problems. He was further frustrated because it looked as though he would not be fit in time to lead Bafana into the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan.
12. LEEDS TESTIMONIAL
Lucas didn’t want fans’ last view of him in a Leeds shirt to be as he was carried off on a stretcher so even though he knew in his heart his playing days were over, he still worked hard on his recovery, determined to make it back at least one more time.
Meanwhile, he threw himself more and more into community work at the club and at home in South Africa. Few footballers have made such an impact on the lives of others as Lucas and his incredible contribution over the previous ten years was acknowledged in a series of presentations.
Leeds Council gave him their Power to Change award. Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Cape Town awarded him honorary doctorates with Lucas quipping, ‘My mum will be very happy, she always said I should be a doctor.’ His country gave him The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, an award given for those who have excelled in the arts and sport.
And football fans paid their tribute. The biggest crowd of the season at Elland Road, just under 40,000, was there not for a crucial league or cup clash, but to honour Lucas at his testimonial match. Some of the biggest names in football came to play in the game and supporters from South Africa, the USA, across Europe and from around Britain, made the journey to say thank you to a great talent and a special man.
Former Bafana coach Clive Barker summed up an unforgettable day: ‘If you were a South African in that crowd and saw the reception Lucas was given and it didn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then there’s something wrong with you.’
There was just one more act in Lucas’s extraordinary playing career. On the following Saturday he came on for the last five minutes of Leeds’ final game of the season, at home to Rotherham. The crowd stood and chanted his name and Gary Kelly trotted over and handed the captain’s armband to the man who would always be The Chief.
Finishing playing eased the pain in his legs and Lucas started to work on the plans that had been made for his retirement. He was also determined to fulfil his promise to spend more time with his family.
But all those plans were rocked by the news that his beloved wife Feziwe had been diagnosed with cancer. With Lucas’s help, she bravely battled the disease for three years but lost her fight on 11 October 2008 aged just 34. Lucas fought to contain his grief for the sake of his children but the pressure on him saw him collapse from stress and exhaustion. And within the year he was hit by another blow when his father Johannes passed away.
It took more than a year before Lucas could start to think seriously about work again. He had commitments to his sponsors and the charities who relied on him to use his popularity to raise their profile. Above all he had his family to look after.
One of the things that gave him a lift was that South Africa was finally awarded the honour of hosting the World Cup finals. He had campaigned for it from the moment the idea was first put forward in the 1990s, and now he flew around the world, a proud ambassador for the 2010 tournament.
For years he had challenged those who doubted his country’s ability to stage such a prestigious event and he felt great satisfaction when the sport’s governing body said ‘This was Africa’s first FIFA World Cup and it will live in the memory as much for the spirit and smiles of the host nation as for the success of the winning Spain team.’
It was an unforgettable moment for Lucas, especially when he thought back to that tall, skinny kid from Diepkloof 4 who faced an uncertain future under a repressive regime.
Through talent, determination, courage and sheer hard work he has become a footballing legend on two continents, and continues to use his celebrity and time to help the lives of thousands of others.
As the citation for his Order of Ikhamanga says: ‘In a career spanning 20 years, Lucas Radebe has risen to the heights of his chosen occupation, enhanced the image of his home continent’s footballers, fought against racism in soccer, inspired hundreds of thousands of young fellow countrymen and ploughed back the fruits of his endeavours into helping ill and deprived children, not only in South Africa but elsewhere in the world. He has brought honour to himself, his family and his country.’
It was fitting that he come on stage at a concert in Soweto on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, not far from his home in Diepkloof, to welcome the world to South Africa.