Lucas Radebe: The original Kaiser Chief

Lucas Radebe inspired many (including the band) during a remarkable footballing career. He bows out with some wonderful memories and just a few regrets...
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The Independent Online

We are scatterlings of Africa
On a journey to the stars*

We are scatterlings of Africa
On a journey to the stars*

Nelson Mandela was on an official visit to Leeds when he spotted a familiar face among the throng. "What are you doing here?" he asked, apparently believing the civic reception was in Liverpool. Turning to the dignitaries, the great leader declared warmly: "This is my hero."

Lucas Radebe relates the story with humility, shaking his head at the idea that Mandela had paid him, a scatterling from Soweto, such a compliment. "I felt I could burst with pride," he says. "I was thinking: 'Me? A hero to him?' He's a true hero. South Africa would not be free and independent today but for his sacrifices and his leadership."

Mandela is not alone in revering the player he dubbed "Big Tree". In West Yorkshire it is said that when the former president and Radebe joined forces with David Beckham at a press conference in support of South Africa's campaign to host the 2010 World Cup, Beckham asked both men for autographs. Radebe, who won his 70th and final cap against England that week, is hugely amused by the tale. Whether true or not - he is not telling - its existence speaks volumes for his charisma.

Before Leeds United's supporters came under its sway they took to his classy defending. They also admired how, after each potentially crippling injury, he returned with a bravery bordering on recklessness.

In the dressing-room, too, no one commands greater respect than "The Chief". The nickname arose because his journey to the stars began in earnest with the Johannesburg football club Kaiser Chiefs (a name since recycled, in homage that tickles and flatters Radebe, by a fast-rising rock band from Leeds), but also because he possesses a regal aura.

As his 11th and final season in England nears its end and retirement looms, Radebe is, typically, fighting to be fit. His time at Leeds has been blighted by injury - he jokes that the club will name a treatment room after him when he is gone - and his last appearance, at Wolves in August, ended with his familiar exit by stretcher with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Now, as he works in the gym, the target is his testimonial match next Monday, when a Leeds XI comprising players from his eventful decade at Elland Road play an International XI managed by Sam Allardyce.

Radebe, a post-millennium Paul McGrath in terms of his poise on the pitch and popularity off it, is determined to play, as he did in the recent game in Barcelona in aid of the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami. "I wore a yellow armband," he explains with what proves to be trademark teasing and laughter, "so people knew they mustn't tackle me."

The organisers plan a farewell fit for a chief and more than 20,000 tickets have already been sold. Radebe will give all the proceeds to charity and wants to raise £500,000. His favoured causes benefit sick, disabled and disadvantaged children, ranging from the Variety Club of Great Britain through funding for teenagers with cancer to SOS Children's Villages. Money will also go to a campaign to halt the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa, which now rivals gunfire as the biggest killer in the townships

Radebe and his wife, Feziwe, plan to return to the Rainbow Nation eventually. For now, their children, Luke and Jessica, are settled in primary school in Yorkshire. He is to take his coaching badges shortly, qualifications which could, in time, led to his becoming coach of the country he represented at the finals of two World Cups. "I know I'll get involved in football when I go home because that's what I know best. I want to give back something from all the experience I've gained; and to keep the ball rolling in producing players who could come to Europe like me. That would be great for football in South Africa."

In the slums where Radebe grew up during the era of apartheid, along with five sisters and six brothers, he learnt his trade playing barefoot with a "ball" made of rolled-up socks. As a teenager he was part of a local vigilante group which "tried to do the right things but in the wrong way", sometimes with violence.

Once, when he was driving to buy drinks for his mother, a bullet ripped through the side of his car, made a hole in his back and exited via the left leg. The shooting was both a "defining moment" and a "blessing in disguise"; a blood-stained brush with death which made him determined to make the most of his life and his talent.

When the manager of the Chiefs, Geoff Hudson, promised to recommend him to English clubs, Radebe let out an incredulous "Whaaaaat?" Yet in 1994, Leeds paid £750,000 for himself and Philomen Masinga. His value was £250,000 - there to keep the striker company, said some - and Howard Wilkinson, in his wisdom, gave him his debut on the right wing.

He and "Waltzing" Masinga - who moved on to Bari in Italy and will join the likes of Tony Yeboah and the 1992 championship-winning midfield of Gordon Strachan, David Batty, Gary McAllister and Gary Speed by playing in his testimonial match - found it hard adapting to the "freezing cold". Neither was he enamoured of Tetley's bitter ("horrible") and roast beef ("ugh") although Yorkshire pudding would grow on him, so to speak, as did fish and chips. After 18 months, a homesick Radebe bought a ticket back to Johannesburg and had visions of being home by Christmas.

Something, possibly the dread of facing his parents, who were so proud when he joined Leeds, told him to stay and to keep trying. Nine months later, the incoming George Graham made him his captain.

He then became a linchpin in David O'Leary's side, citing the team that reached the Champions' League semi-finals in 2001 as "definitely the best" he played in and European victories at Lazio and at home to Spartak Moscow (when he scored a rare, late goal to win the tie) as personal highlights.

The realisation, though, that Peter Ridsdale's castle was built on sand left Radebe "hurting". Likewise relegation, which he had helped to delay by a year with a superlative display in Leeds' unexpected status-saving triumph at Arsenal almost exactly two years ago. "We made such giant strides, challenging for the title and in Europe, and suddenly the club was falling apart," he says of the fall that followed 12 months later. "It was a sad, difficult time. But Leeds will rise again. Things are improving financially. First we need stability, then success will follow."

If that success does follow, he will be part of it only in spirit. "I've always wanted to play. I just couldn't sit back and watch, and I didn't want injuries to stop me doing what I enjoy most. I love the club, the place, the vibe. And I've got no regrets. But when I leave here I have to be able to walk. My family have told me: 'There's life after football'. And people at the club say: 'There's no need to finish in such a state that you can't kick a ball around with little Luke'."

Even so, his emotions will be thrashing around like the power chords of the "other" Kaiser Chiefs when he leaves the pitch for the last time.

"I'll go with a smile, because tigers don't cry, and with great memories and friendships," Radebe says. "But I've always found it sad leaving Leeds United at the end of the season. Imagine leaving forever."

*From "Scatterlings of Africa" by Juluka, a song on Out of Africa: The Captain's Choice (Sony CD), compiled by Lucas Radebe.

Radebe and the Kaiser Chiefs: Paul McCartney is a fan, but Liam Gallagher isn't

When Lucas Radebe is asked to autograph a photo of himself with the Kaiser Chiefs, the Leeds-based rock group who are named after his club in South Africa, he adds, "great band" before mischievously drawing an arrow that points to his head and writing the words "Lead Singer". A keen music fan, he nominates "Oh My God" and "I Predict A Riot" as the stand-out tracks on the Chiefs' Top-10 album Employment and even sings the hook lines. Radebe is not alone in admiring the Clash-influenced five-piece: the former member of The Beatles Paul McCartney is a fan (although Liam Gallagher of Oasis is not), while they received critical acclaim at this year's South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas and "house full" notices were posted on their headlining tour of the UK. The Kaiser Chiefs have backed Radebe's ambition to raise £500,000 for children's charities by auctioning signed T-shirts bearing their slogan: "Everything is brilliant in Leeds."

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