Football: Radebe revelling in life at Leeds

Premiership: Tense Roses derby at Old Trafford today is unlikely to daunt an inspirational captain for club and country
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The Independent Online
THE TWO thumping volumes containing England's 2006 World Cup Bid, which Michael Owen presented to Sepp Blatter in Zurich on Monday, featured a series of ringing endorsements of the English game from foreigners involved in it.

Dwight Yorke, Gianfranco Zola, Arsene Wenger, Franck Leboeuf, even Crystal Palace's departed Fan Zhiyi, were rolled out to extol the virtues of passionate crowds and fine stadiums.

But Lucas Radebe, though idolised within his own country, captain of one of the Premiership's major clubs and a perfect ambassador for both, did not feature. This was hardly surprising; the Leeds United defender is a fifth columnist in the English game. He hails from South Africa, the leading rival in the bidding.

Unlike Owen, Radebe was not in Zurich smooth talking the game's political big-wigs on Monday. He was on a wet and windswept football pitch in North Yorkshire, preparing to do his own bit for South Africa's bid. As with his captaincy, Radebe leads by example and today he hopes to underline that, when it comes to producing footballers, South Africa is just as successful as "the home of football".

At noon today Radebe will lead Leeds United out at Old Trafford for the first major match of this season. Having come fourth in May Leeds are seeking to challenge the Premiership's dominant triumvirate and this week's events suggest they can.

While Manchester United were putting four past Sheffield Wednesday on Wednesday, Leeds were adding Darren Huckerby to their squad then scoring three at The Dell without him. The performance justified the pre-season view of Sir Alex Ferguson, who said: "Leeds are the outsider we are looking at, we've seen them twice and they've been sensational."

"There is," confirmed Radebe, when we met at Leeds' training ground near Wetherby this week, "a lot of expectation. We finished well last season. We played entertaining football. We had very enthusiastic young stars who wanted to do the job.

"I hope we can start the way we finished. The whole team is working hard, everybody wants to achieve, we know what is possible, we are very positive. It was very disappointing losing Jimmy [Floyd Hasselbaink], he has done very well for us and you need a player who can guarantee goals. But it is part of the game: players go, players come - you have to get another one."

Such a phlegmatic view on the loss of the club's leading scorer is to be expected when a reporter is listening but, in Radebe's case, the sense of perspective is genuine and hard-earned. While he is one of South Africa's best ambassadors, he also carries a vivid reminder of his country's problems. The high crime rate threatens to undermine the country's bid and Radebe has been a dramatic victim of it, having been shot and wounded while driving through Soweto in the early Nineties.

While he still bears the scars, Radebe miraculously escaped serious injury - the bullet went into the side of his back and came out of his thigh but missed both muscle and bone. It also missed his brothers, sister and nephew, who were in the car with him. The gunman was never found.

"I was very lucky," Radebe said this week. "It gave me another look at life, to know how lucky I am to be where I am today and to do what I am doing. I could have been in a wheelchair, I could have been six feet underground."

Thus the prospect of a Pennine derby, a match so suffused with tension and menace that the kick-off has been brought forward to reduce pre-match drinking time, is not one to frighten him.

The incident, however, is hardly a good advertisement for his country. "It was a long while ago," he responds, "the crime situation has got much better. Every country has crime. The World Cup needs a lot of security but we can provide that.

"My family are still in Soweto and I always enjoy going back. We have great facilities in South Africa and now we are allowed to play the rest of the world (contact was banned by Fifa, the game's world governing body, during the apartheid era), we can invite big teams to come and see how it is.

"Europe has had the chance to host a World Cup, this is the only chance for an African country to do so. It is a great opportunity, we have the grounds, the hotels, the facilities that Fifa requires.

"It would be great for our country to get it, for the kids, for our football. It is a great responsibility but we know we can do it."

The shooting was not the only obstacle Radebe overcame to be a footballer - long before, his mother, for the best of motives, had tried to stop him.

Having seen him diving about the streets of Soweto as a youngster - Radebe had a penchant for goalkeeping - she sent him to live with relatives in Bophustatswanaland, one of the artificial "black homelands", so he would concentrate on his education.

"I was prone to serious injury and my mum did not like me playing. In South Africa then you were playing only for fun, at the end of it you end up nowhere and it takes up a lot of time you could have been doing schoolwork.

"She sent me away at 15 but I got involved in football to keep myself busy. I was a goalkeeper, then went outfield and about a year later joined Kaiser Chiefs."

From there he joined Leeds in September 1994 for pounds 250,000 and, after a couple of frustrating seasons, established himself as one of the Premiership's best defenders. Rarely booked, he is one of those players who is unspectacular but efficient. On Wednesday neither the muscle of Egil Ostenstad or speed of Marians Pahars troubled him, while he also found time to guide Michael Duberry through his Leeds debut.

On brief acquaintance he appears an engaging man with a warm smile and relaxed attitude, an impression confirmed by his manager, David O'Leary, who said: "He's a great player and a great lad as well."

Tony Mashati, the football correspondent of Sportsday, the South African daily sports paper, said: "He's a great role model who is seen as a potential coach of the national team."

Radebe, who has won more than 50 caps, does intend to return to South Africa "to pass on his experience" but, at 30, intends to keep playing for a few more years yet - the 2006 World Cup is a target, especially if it is in South Africa.

Should it come to England he would still like to be involved. "We didn't really follow English football when we were young as we didn't get any in the apartheid days but now, when I go back, everybody is tuned into it and wants to know what so-and-so is like and how I feel playing all these big-name players."

They do not come any bigger than today though, having kept goal for an hour at Old Trafford three years ago - and only conceding a late Roy Keane goal - Radebe is unlikely to be overawed.

"That was a great experience, I really enjoyed it, but hope I won't have to do it this time."