In 1991, Lucas Radebe was shot on the streets of Soweto. He was driving the same route that he had hundreds of times before. Only this time, he was a rising soccer star. While shopping for his mother, he heard a gunshot – not unusual in the area. Then his left leg went limp, and the blood confirmed it. The bullet pierced his back and exited through the front of his thigh.
Who pulled the trigger? Radebe has always suspected it as an attempt to prevent the valuable defender from switching clubs. A major setback so early should have derailed his trajectory. For Radebe this was only the beginning of an astonishing sporting career that would see him play for Kaizer Chiefs and Leeds United, and captain the AFCON-winning South African national football team.
As formidable as he is on the pitch, Radebe’s modest manner gives no hint of aggression. Everyone who meets him praises his kindness and sincerity. Tall and lean, he radiates a warmth and familiarity uncommon amongst sporting stars of his stature.
Radebe’s beginnings are as humble as his disposition. He was born in Soweto in 1969. One of ten siblings, he learned early that hard work was essential if he wanted to stand out. His natural athletic abilities were honed on the Soweto streets, where he grew up playing soccer with boys in the township. “I think that’s where I picked it up,” he says. “Every weekend, during the week, after school, I’m on the field and I’m getting dirty, playing football. That’s how I grew up, and I think that’s when I realised my talent.”
At fifteen, Radebe was sent to live in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana. It was a tumultuous period in South Africa. Political violence was increasing. Riots were widespread. The Soweto streets were rough for young men. Many of his peers became involved in criminal activities. Some of them were jailed.
His parents wanted more for him. “I think it was a good decision when I look at what my parents did,” he says. “I would’ve possibly ended up like some of my friends – jailed or injured or never realising the talent that I had, so all the credit to them.”
It was in Bophuthatswana that Radebe’s career began. He played for a local club – the ICL Birds – and was noticed by South African soccer legend, Ace Ntsoelengoe, who recruited him to play for Kaiser Chiefs. “I was a Pirates fan!” Radebe laughs. “I didn’t stay with Kaizer Chiefs for long, and can you imagine how confusing it was for a young Orlando Pirates fan playing for the Chiefs?” Ever the diplomat, he adds, “It was a great club, with great players, always producing talent to go abroad.”
By 1994 apartheid had been dismantled and South Africa was welcomed back to the International Federation of Association Football. The first democratic elections took place and political exiles had begun returning home. It was also the year that Radebe joined Leeds United. He was 25 years old. Radebe had been included in Leeds’ deal to acquire Phil Masinga, but the young athlete would soon prove to be a worthy investment himself.
A few years prior, he had joined the new South African national team. Like the World Cup-winning Springboks before them, the nation was looking to Bafana Bafana for inspiration, to encourage their faith in the country’s unity. Here were a group of young men leading South Africa in what would be a triumphant return to the international sporting stage.
“We had talented boys, we had matured players, we had the perfect team,” Lucas Radebe says. “South Africa was buzzing because part of that was uniting everybody in this country. We were creating the rainbow nation.”
Bafana progressed to the final of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, where they beat Tunisia. The country exploded in celebration. “It was one of the greatest moments in my career,” Radebe says. “For the first time ever we hosted the Africa Cup of Nations and we won. We made everybody proud, and to see the rainbow nation – to see black and white together cheering in the crowd – was absolutely special.”
Radebe struggled to find his feet with Leeds. He clashed with the manager, Howard Wilkinson, and sustained minor injuries that prevented him from finding a permanent place in the first team. When the team changed management in 1998, Radebe was made captain of the squad, and his career flourished.
Under Radebe’s leadership, Leeds came fourth in the FA Premier League in the 1998-99 season, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. During the following season, they came third in the Premier League and made it to the Champions League where they reached the semi-finals. Leeds fans worshipped their new captain, nicknaming him ‘The Chief’ – a tribute to both his history with Kaiser Chiefs and his Zulu heritage.
Radebe led Bafana Bafana during both the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, but the squad failed to emulate their previous wins. Still, Radebe’s leadership was remarkable, and he was included in the 2002 score sheet. South Africa has yet to see a national soccer team as powerful and focused as that led by Radebe.
In May 2005, over 35,000 fans packed Leeds’ Elland Park Stadium to bid farewell to their ‘Chief’. After a career spanning almost fifteen years, Radebe retired. In a testimony attended by international football giants and former Leeds United stars, Radebe stepped away from professional football and took his place amongst those same soccer legends.
While he’s enjoyed a celebrated career, he’s also endured his share of obstacles. In 2000, the defender sustained serious injuries in his knees and ankles, keeping him benched for almost two years. It was a difficult setback; he had to fight to regain his form and his place in the Leeds United team. In 2008, his wife and mother of his two children, Feziwe, lost her battle against cancer. She was only 34 years old.
Despite his background, his struggles, and personal tragedy, Lucas Radebe is one of the most successful South African footballers of all time, and a beloved figure in the game. He has achieved more international caps than any other South African player and has been named one of the Premier League’s Top 100 Greatest Players. Still, he remains humble in a field famed for excess and egos.
“To be honest, I never thought I would get to the level that I am at,” Radebe says. “But I think it’s all about respect and integrity – it was all about the values that I possessed. You know, when I was young, growing up during the days of apartheid, I believe that that carved my career. For me it was all about my country, it was never about myself.”