Lucas Radebe remains an admired soccer legend in UK

‘Moving there was a shock to my system’

Former Leeds United player Lucas Radebe
Former Leeds United player Lucas Radebe
Image: Getty Images/George Wood

Former Bafana captain Lucas "Rhoo" Radebe, who to this day remains an admired soccer legend in the UK, says it was initially challenging to adapt to life in Europe and would often ask himself if he belonged there. 

Although his London supporters still honour him through a beer brand and have held for him a testimonial of more than 37,886 attendants at the end of his career, Radebe describes his prompt move to Leeds United as "tough with harsh conditions".

Radebe played for the former English Premier League club for more than a decade, appearing in almost 200 games and became captain for the 1998-99 season. The Soweto-born defender said convincing the Europeans of their skills alongside late star striker Philemon Masinga was quite a challenging mission. 

The duo left SA for England in 1994 after Leeds’ then manager Howard Wilkinson showed interest in Masinga, who had played for Jomo Cosmos and Mamelodi Sundowns. But Masinga would not go anywhere without Radebe, who had been playing for Kaizer Chief at the time, a moment he jokingly deems as "babysitting".

“I have to say moving there was a shock to my system. Coming from SA, I had friends and people I could talk to and see when I woke up and then the next thing I was in London. It was the most terrible conditions.

“It was hard being a new player there and some of the people treated us like we didn’t know how to play football because SA was the country with the cheapest players. They didn’t know our strengths because our country was rebuilding the national team and had just been readmitted to play internationally, so it was an untapped market for raw talent. I had a terrible first season at Leeds. I had injuries, while battling to adapt to the standard of the game,” said Radebe.

In the following season, the legendary Bafana centre-back bounced back following the club’s new coach appointment – George Graham. The Whites played him as a substitute goalkeeper, who in the process, earned himself a hero status, and started silencing strikers as a centre-back.

Lucas Radebe during his time as Bafana Bafana captain
Lucas Radebe during his time as Bafana Bafana captain
Image: Gallo Images/Duif du Toit

“I was only 24 years old when I left SA, I had made my international debut in 1992 against Cameroon. It was tough having to adapt and once I did, I never looked back. I never thought I would do that well, there was a time I would ask myself if I belonged there.

“I am convinced that it was God’s blessing. I think I was meant to play football. What I went through was very difficult, I didn’t know I would make it but I managed to convince the Europeans that I could do better and they started believing in me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had left a lot of great players behind and felt lucky,” he said.

The 54-year-old had played at the Soweto giants Amakhosi for nearly four years before his international transfer. At this point, his mother, Emily Radebe, was still convinced that her son had to become a teacher. She occasionally reminded him that football was not a real career.

“Because there were 10 children at home, my parents wanted something to come out of that big family we had. My mother wanted me to become a teacher, so when I was still in school, she made sure I did my homework no matter how much I went out to play football while I was at Wolf Wanderers FC.  

“She still wasn’t satisfied even when I was at Chiefs. Before I joined the club, Kaizer Motaung had to convince her that I would be taken to a teaching college.

“It felt like I was going against my parents’ wishes. She even said it was an excuse for partying and becoming unruly. But I was  the breadwinner, she realised I was successful and kept my behaviour in check at all times,” said Radebe.

He said things are not what they used to be in the SA football industry as the national team finds it difficult to qualify to compete in international tournaments and to pull the crowds when they host other teams.

“There was something about the Bafana squad that played during the 1990s. If you look closely, we had the experience of playing abroad. International football teaches you professionalism for you to become a holistic footballer. Mark Fish, Mark Williams and Shoes Moshoeu were all playing overseas and when we came back home we took our experience and brought it back to the country. We were formidable,” he said with a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. 

Lucas Radebe during the 2023 COSAFA Cup Legends Coaching Clinics in Umlazi, Durban
Lucas Radebe during the 2023 COSAFA Cup Legends Coaching Clinics in Umlazi, Durban
Image: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Retiring at the age of 36 in 2005, Radebe decided he didn’t want to get into coaching as that path would continue to keep him away from spending time with his family.

“I had promised my wife that I would do everything with my family that I couldn’t do when I was playing. I tried coaching but it wasn’t my passion. I wanted to give back but not in that way. I had to be selfish with my time and give it to my loved ones like I promised my wife until her untimely death in 2008,” said Radebe.

However, he aspires to give back through football administration. With many hoping that he becomes the president of Safa one day, Radebe wishes to change football for the better in the country through his wisdom as a past player.

“I think we can do better. I can see there is talent and potential that can help in reaching the level where we can compete consistently for the biggest tournaments like in the World Cup.

“I want to contribute to football structures, not exactly a position at Safa, but I want to make sure football becomes successful. I believe in integrity and credibility. I still want to be part of making a difference in the game, but not as a coach,” he concluded.


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