Lucas Radebe: from being shot in South Africa to national icon and Leeds legend

Lucas Radebe: from being shot in South Africa to national icon and Leeds legend

To achieve legend status at a club with the history of Leeds United is a huge honour. Given his humble beginnings, it is even more remarkable that one of Elland Road’s favourite sons is Lucas ‘The Chief’ Radebe.

The South Africa that Radebe grew up in was torn in so many ways. Apartheid-era South Africa saw blacks treated as second class citizens and their leaders locked away. In Johannesburg, Radebe was at the centre of the conflict.

Like most boys of his age, Radebe became part of the protest movement. He regularly attended anti-apartheid rallies in what was a dangerous time. Many died and funerals became the norm every Sunday for young protestors who had been killed. Radebe’s escape was through his true love, football.

As a tall, skinny child, Radebe stood out. With his tongue stuck out, he was attracting admirers as he commanded matches on the waste grounds of the townships, where the ball was normally rolled-up socks and games often consisted of far more than 11-a-side.

On the request of his parents, Radebe moved to one of the safer ‘homelands’ to the north of Johannesburg. He quickly made a name for himself in amateur football. On his debut, he played in goal at short notice, but produced a stunning performance to save two penalties. 

Quickly, though, it was his commanding displays at the back that drew the attention of the biggest clubs in South Africa. In a Castel Cup semi-final for his local side, Radebe played on for 70 minutes despite breaking several teeth after a flying boot caught him. He could only eat out of a straw for a week but had led his side to the final.

Kaizer Motaung, the owner of the Kaizer Chiefs, was suddenly on the phone. He begged Radebe day after day to join him at one of the biggest clubs in the country. After a deal was struck to ensure that Radebe could continue his studies, and with the blessings of his parents, he was now a professional footballer at the age of just 20. He was making a name just at the right time.

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Progressing and excelling as part of an all-conquering Chiefs side, apartheid was ending. South Africa was once again open to the world and Radebe starred in a three-match series against Cameroon, who just two years earlier had reached the quarter-finals at Italia 90.

Weeks later, Radebe led the Chiefs against Crystal Palace in a prestigious friendly which saw him up against future teammate Nigel Martyn. But just as things were looking up and scouts from top European clubs were following the young defender, tragedy struck.

On his way to buying drinks for his mother, Radebe heard a loud bang; it took a while for him to realise he had been shot, but there was blood was everywhere, and when he reached the hospital, he needed emergency surgery. Miraculously the bullet had entered his back and come through his thigh but somehow missed any organs or arteries. Radebe, though, had missed out on something.

While he was in hospital he was due to play a league game for the Chiefs, where Beşiktaş scouts had made plans to see him. His injuries from the shooting cost him a move to Turkey, but luckily Leeds United scout Geoff Sleight had already seen Radebe play and convinced manager Howard Wilkinson to sign both the defender and his international teammate Philemon Masinga.

Despite his big break, and having overcome his shooting, Radebe found it hard going. Struggling with the climate and the new style of play in Yorkshire, the South African failed to impress and had to wait for his chance. When it did come, it was a disaster. His debut against Mansfield in the Coca-Cola Cup was in front of Elland Road’s lowest crowd for 32 years. He came on for Gordon Strachan but couldn’t prevent a shock defeat. United had been champions of Division One just a few years earlier but they were now a shadow of that great side.

Radebe looked set to become another foreign name that graced the Premier League but failed to make any impact. Being played out of position, he finally got his chance in his favoured role of centre-back against Coventry, but he left the pitch on a stretcher – it seemed like nothing was going right for him in England. Radebe had ruptured his cruciate ligaments in his right knee and many feared his career was over. Leeds considered letting releasing him and it was all but certain that he would miss the Africa Cup of Nations, which was to be hosted in South Africa the following year.

Despite missing Leeds’ pre-season tour to his homeland, his incredible work ethic during his recovery ensured he returned a week before the end of the year to first-team football. He only managed a few minutes but it was enough to persuade Bafana coach Clive Barker to select him in his AFCON squad. Wilkinson, however, was not impressed.

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The Leeds boss refused to let him go and Radebe’s grand return was in jeopardy. Only last-minute negotiations between Barker and Wilkinson allowed him to travel but he was to be eased into the tournament. He only played 13 minutes of the first two games as Bafana made a perfect start to their own tournament. When he finally made his first start, he couldn’t prevent his side from losing 1-0 to Egypt in their final group stage game.

Despite the setback, the tournament was being recognised as a great success. Months after the Rugby World Cup had united the nation, this was when football came home to South Africa, in the same year that it did so in England. A narrow win over Algeria set-up a mouth-watering semi-final against hotly tipped Ghana.

Minutes in and Radebe made a rare mistake. He handed a golden opportunity to his Leeds teammate Tony Yeboah. The prolific forward latched onto the ball and looked set to score but fluffed his lines. South Africa went on to win convincingly 3-0 but Radebe knew he was lucky: “My heart stopped when Yebbo intercepted my pass,” Radebe later recalled with his trademark beaming smile.

Over 100,000 fans packed into Soccer City as Mark Williams grabbed a double to defeat Tunisia in the final. In a similar act to the Rugby World Cup final the previous year, President Nelson Mandela, in his Bafana shirt, handed over the trophy and the party began. Radebe turned his phone off so no-one could stop him from celebrating.

When he returned to Yorkshire, he started in another final. This time, however, it didn’t go his way. At Wembley in the Coca-Cola Cup final, he was taken off in the second half as Aston Villa brushed United aside.

Even though Leeds were not the all-conquering team they had been in previous years, Radebe was establishing himself as a cult figure in central Yorkshire. This was set in stone when Leeds played bitter rivals Manchester United weeks after the League Cup final. In the opening stages, Leeds had their goalkeeper Mark Beeney sent off. With no goalkeeper on the bench, Radebe was given the gloves and did not disappoint. He made stunning saves to deny Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole and was only beaten by a Roy Keane effort as the eventual champions narrowly beat an impressive ten-man Leeds.

The next time Leeds played United, it was a different story. The Yorkshire side were humiliated 4-0 and Wilkinson was shown the door. In came the ex-Arsenal defence-focused duo of George Graham as manager and David O’Leary as his assistant. Although not the most attractive side in the league, Leeds were now solid, with Radebe the rock at the back.

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Before South Africa’s historic friendly against England, Radebe was handed the national team captaincy. It was the ultimate honour for a man who never forgot his roots, and a year later, he led out his country in the 1998 World Cup opener against hosts France. Radebe was once again at the centre of history for the Bafana, and he was also at the top of his game.

South Africa were easily beaten by Les Bleus but came from behind to earn a draw against Denmark, with Benni McCarthy scoring their first-ever World Cup finals goal. A disappointing 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia followed, which put the Bafana out on goal difference. It was not the ending Radebe and co. wanted, but they had finally competed at the highest level.

Awarded Leeds’ Player of the Year prior to France 98, he helped the club finish fifth in the Premier League and ensure their return to European football. His rise at Leeds also saw him given the captain’s armband by Graham on the eve of the 1998/99 season, a reflection of his standing at the club. Soon after, though, Graham moved back to London to take charge of Tottenham.

The bookies had Radebe as the favourite to be the Scotsman’s first signing at the Lane. After a few weeks of uncertainty, O’Leary was named as the new Leeds boss and Radebe declared he was staying to continue to work with a man who had taught him so much. It was O’Leary who had given Radebe the nickname ‘The Chief’ and was part of the reason why he turned down offers from both Spurs and Chelsea.

Soon after, Radebe again led South Africa to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, but this time they were denied by Nigeria, who scored after just 40 seconds on their way to a 2-0 victory. It was the third time in a row the Bafana had reached the final but they only had one trophy to show for it.

Leeds, meanwhile, were on the hunt for a first European trophy since 1971. They knocked out an impressive Roma side in the UEFA Cup, coached by Fabio Capello, who tried to sign Radebe after his commanding performances over the two legs, but their campaign was to end in tragedy. Their exit to Turkish side Galatasaray was overshadowed as two Leeds fans were killed on the streets of Istanbul.

The following season, Leeds returned to Europe’s premier club competition, but their Champions League campaign started disastrously. A 4-0 defeat against Barcelona at the Camp Nou was compounded by Radebe ending up in hospital after a clash of heads with teammate Michael Duberry. Far from full fitness, Radebe convinced the doctors to let him play in the vital match against AC Milan as qualification hung in the balance. The Chief produced a man of the match display as Leeds reached the second round, using his strength, experience and leadership to marshall those around him.

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Even though Radebe had been a virtual ever-present over the last few years, the 30-year-old found himself under pressure as the club paid a record fee of £18m to bring in talented youngster Rio Ferdinand from West Ham. However, he continued to impress and began to strike a commanding partnership with the new recruit.

In a typically dominant performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, Radebe caught his studs in the turf and again injured his right knee. It was the start of a series of injuries that would blight the latter part of his career; he would go on to miss the Champions League semi-final, which Leeds lost to Valencia, and the Africa Cup of Nations.

The only bright spot in this difficult time was the visit to Leeds of Nelson Mandela. From the steps of Leeds Town Hall, Mandela proclaimed that Radebe “is my hero”. It was fitting praise for a man who had embodied the progress of South African football – and wider South African society – and who made such an impact both at home and abroad.

Despite his undoubted popularity, Radebe was struggling for game time at Leeds as he continued to be plagued by injuries. He suffered ankle ligament damage in a reserve game against Sunderland, with many again fearing that his career was over. Off the pitch, Leeds’ golden era had faded away. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were involved in a drawn-out and very public trial over an attack on the streets of Leeds and performances on the pitch were suffering. Radebe could only look on from the sidelines, unable to turn his side’s fortunes around and demonstrate his powerful leadership to unite everyone on the pitch.

Radebe did, however, manage three reserve games at the end of the season, after pleading with the Leeds physios to let him play. It was enough to prove his fitness ahead of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Carlos Queiroz resigned as coach of the Bafana on the eve of the tournament after a dispute with the federation and was replaced by Jomo Sono, who had led South Africa to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1998.

It was Radebe’s last chance to play on football’s biggest stage and he knew it. South Africa produced a spirited fightback to earn a point against Paraguay after being 2-0 down, and beat Slovenia 1-0, dominating throughout, in what was the country’s first win at the World Cup. It meant a draw against Spain was required in order for their World Cup dream to remain alive.

Spain led but the Bafana twice hit back, with Radebe scoring the second. A Raúl winner coupled with Paraguay winning 3-1 against Slovenia ensured South Africa went home on goal difference. When the squad landed back in their homeland, they were greeted with a rapturous reception after their exploits. For Radebe, it was his last hurrah.

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Leeds had overspent and a series of managers could not turn it around. Chairman Peter Ridsdale left as the club slipped out of the top flight for the first time since 1990. As Leeds began life back in the second tier, Radebe once again suffered a major injury setback as he ruptured his Achilles tendon against Wolves.

After another prolonged recovery, the Chief, playing his final game for the Bafana – and what would prove to be his last competitive start – captained his side against England in Durban in a friendly that went a long way to convincing FIFA that South Africa could host the World Cup. It was, on the face of it, a sad end to a glorious career, but Radebe had other ideas.

After working hard on yet another recovery, he managed to play in his testimonial at the end of the season. Over 40,000 fans packed into Elland Road to see the great man play. It proved to be the biggest crowd of the season, a testament to the standing of the man among the Leeds faithful. The following week, he came on for the final five minutes in the last game of the season against Rotherham and was given the captain’s armband; it was a fitting end for one of the club’s greatest players. Retirement came as a welcome relief to Radebe, who had suffered so many setbacks in the final years of his career that he could barely play by the end.

His plans for life after football were rocked in 2005 when his wife, Feziwe, was diagnosed with cancer. Radebe was by her side throughout her three-year fight before she sadly passed away in October 2008. A year later, his father – who Radebe credited for much of his success and positive outlook in life – Johannes passed away. It meant that he took time away from the spotlight to focus on his family.

Recent years have been kinder to Radebe as he has been able to use his huge profile in South Africa and England to promote various charitable causes. He had been renowned for his spirit and generosity during his playing days, using his fearsome strength and defensive ability in the fairest ways possible, so the breadth of his charity work came as no surprise to anyone.

In many ways, Radebe epitomises South Africa. From his humble and troubled beginnings in the dangerous fields of Johannesburg to World Cups and Africa Cup of Nations glory, Radebe made a name for himself as a determined leader and commanding player. He was a beacon for South African football and led them to become an African superpower and competitive on the world stage.

He is still adored to this day both in his homeland and at Leeds, where he delighted fans with his tough tackling on the pitch and his humility off it – he was the perfect professional. With a smile on his face and his tongue stuck out, the Chief will be remembered as one of the finest imports in Premier League history.

By Richard Hinman @RichardHinman

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