There’s something solid about Lucas Radebe. Something calm and sturdy—a kind of steadfastness that gives you the idea you are safe with him. He is late for this interview because he was picking up his children.
“Being a single father has taught me a lot. Mostly, it has taught me how to be at two places at once, as well to be two people in one,” he says.
There are two sides to the Lucas Radebe story—glory and pain. He hit professional heights by playing at Leeds United and scoring at a World Cup. The painful side of his life was the tragic death of his young wife, who succumbed to bowel cancer in 2008, when their youngest was just two years old.
“My wife’s death has been the one event in my life that humbled me beyond words. It was the sort of thing that I never thought would happen to me at that point in my life, but I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he says of the tragedy that led his family home.
“Even after I had retired from active football, it never seemed likely that we would return to South Africa to live here permanently again. Leeds United—which I had captained for more than 12 years—had offered me a job and named a stand in their home stadium after me—I was deeply entrenched in the community and had many projects and initiatives that I had set up there,” he explains.
Radebe looks sad for a moment. Then the trademark toothpaste smile returns gently as he talks of the old days and the game he loves.
“In 1987, my parents decided to take me out of Soweto because of all the racial violence that was happening there due to political unrest. I found myself in Bophuthatswana—in a rural area called Lehurutse. Having been a boy from a fast-paced township, I found that the only thing that was there to keep me occupied was soccer.
“Sooner than anyone knew it, I was starting to excel at the game—to the point where I was now playing for the Bopson League and even for the Bophuthatswana national team,” he says.
Radebe returned home when Bophuthatswana played the South African national team. He was a goalkeeper in those early days, before a kick in the face persuaded him to give up the gloves to become a central defender.
“Even though my parents were not really keen on it, it was pretty obvious that I was going professional when after that match, Kaizer Chiefs offered me a contract which I signed during the first week of trials,” recalls Radebe.
After two years at Kaizer Chiefs, Radebe shifted his focus towards Europe when Leeds United called him for a trial.
“At that point, I was convinced that it wasn’t going to happen for me. I was 25 years old, which is considered ‘late’ in the football world, and most of my teammates—Phil Masinga, Sean Bartlett and many others—had already gone and had been properly settled,” he relates.
Soon after arriving in Leeds, Radebe regretted it.
“The weather was bad, the homesickness was awful and worst of all, I was the only other black person in the town of Leeds, and the community were not sparing in the way they treated me like an alien,” says Radebe.
“The racism came as a serious shock to me. It was almost like jumping from the frying pan into the fire—except in my home country, things were beginning to settle down with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.”
Radebe recalls that the racial hatred became so bad that one time when he was sent off for a foul, the crowds struck up a sickening racial chant.
“I remember I was being escorted off the field. When I heard what they were saying, I stopped and asked the officials on either side of me if they were hearing what I was hearing. They carried on straight-faced. I guess they just didn’t know what to say,” Radebe says.
The officials may have been tongue-tied, but Radebe wasn’t going to be.
“I decided to start two programs—one was called ‘Kick Racism out of Football’, and the other was called ‘Learning with Lucas’. The latter was designed to teach kids in the community about the different races and the different cultures that exist in the world, while the former was an initiative that was designed to be implemented in actual soccer teams where racial intolerance was rife,” he explains.
As Radebe’s community work helped him find his space, Leeds United management also discovered that Radebe could be a rock for the team as well. In one famous Premier League game against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1996, Radebe had to take up the goalkeeping gloves once again. The Leeds goalkeeper, Mark Beeney, had been sent off and the team didn’t have a substitute goalkeeper on the bench. Apparently the manager, George Graham, could never see the point.
“As I walked towards the goal I looked across to my South African teammate Phil Masinga and he just put his head in his hands,” recalled Radebe in a radio interview years later.
Radebe distinguished himself in front of 48,000 people, saving blinding shots from Brian McClair and Ryan Giggs, before Eric Cantona put one past him to win the game 1-0.
“My game was really starting to flourish. I had also been in the Bafana Bafana team that won the Africa Cup of Nations, and Manchester United came knocking looking for my signature. After much deliberation, I turned them down because I viewed Leeds United as a club where I could really make a lasting impact. I was now very loyal to them,” he says.
His loyalty was repaid. Leeds United matched Manchester United’s offer, and made Radebe captain. Radebe’s star rose even higher when Nelson Mandela visited Leeds for the official opening of a park named after him. He requested that Radebe introduce him to the crowd and said the footballer was one of his heroes.
“How the nation rated me got a definite boost from that point on. It even became hard to leave the team even when they had been relegated to the second division,” says Radebe.
Then there was the glory of scoring for his country against the mighty Spain in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. Many South Africans remember where they were when Radebe’s powerful header hit the net. It was an equalizer that could have sent South Africa through to the knock out stages, but Raul scored three minutes later to deny them on goal difference.
When Radebe retired from Leeds in 2005, 37,886 fans turned up at Elland Road for his testimonial. Most of the Leeds fans have taken him into their hearts and called him “Rhoo” or “the Chief” out of respect for his former club in South Africa. When a Leeds brewery asked for suggestions for the name of a new beer, the most popular suggestion was “Radebeer”.
It was then that he returned home to recast himself as an entrepreneur and nurture the family that had lost its mother. He didn’t want to end up broke like many of his fellow players.
“I started preparing for my retirement from soccer four years before it actually happened. I set up trusts and my own management company that would look after all my interests. Right now, I have an endorsement deal with toothpaste brand Aquafresh and FNB,” he says.
Even though Radebe is gearing up to become an entrepreneur, he still cannot—and does not—want to rule out football.
“Retiring was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Soccer is still very close to my heart, and if I am not given the opportunity to coach the national team, I will look into starting a development program where we get to train footballers from a young age, because I believe that is where we are getting it wrong in terms of soccer at our national level,” he concludes.
Maybe one day Radebe will rise through the ranks of South African football to do something about it.