Lucas Radebe lives the expression 'leading from the front'. A long-time captain of Leeds United and South Africa, he guided the English club into Europe and helped Bafana Bafana participate at two FIFA World Cups™.
Nicknamed 'The Chief' at Elland Road and 'Roo' in his homeland, Radebe knows what it takes to make an inspirational leader. "You have to be respected on the field of play, the players have to respect you with what you do, not who you are," he explained.
Radebe was raised in a sporting family in Soweto, where he dabbled in football, but his professional career started as a goalkeeper in Bophututswana, which was a quasi-state created by the apartheid South African government. Radebe was then approached by South African club heavyweights Kaizer Chiefs, but he had to receive permission from his mother to play. "The first time I had to train with Kaizer Chiefs my heart was beating so fast, I was so scared," he told FIFA.com.
An athletic central defender, he quickly established himself in the Chiefs' side. However, even as a youngster Radebe was prone to injuries, although he would often play through the pain barrier because he "loved football so much."
Radebe and Phil Masinga swapped Kaizer Chiefs for Leeds United in 1994. "Leeds' pre-season training was tough. All we used to do was train, eat and sleep," Radebe said. "We used to train so hard I used to get sick. There were no friends, only me and Phil."
In his first season in England's north, Radebe ruptured his cruciate ligament. Confined to the treatment room, he swiftly became lonely and homesick. "It's not only about the injury, it's about your emotions and how you feel," he explained. "If you are happy then you send positive vibes through your body and it helps you heal."
Radebe was, in fact, on a rehabilitation programme when then Bafana Bafana coach Clive Barker named him in his CAF Africa Cup of Nations South Africa 1996 squad. He did not need to be asked twice.
Nelson Mandela regularly visited the players during their pre-tournament training camp and the competition itself, and before kick-off he told them: "What you are doing is part of the reconstruction of South Africa," before promising to "make sure that everyone is behind you."
And the South African public certainly were behind the team, which went on to reward them with the continental title. "
When you scream from excitement and everyone is screaming with you, you are one
," said of the triumph.
An icon at Elland Road
In his second season at Elland Road, Radebe was handed the armband. Under his captaincy, Leeds went on to enjoy impressive finishes in the Premier League and participate in both the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, and he believes the atmosphere at the club was instrumental to the side's success. "There was no gap between players and fans" he said.
Radebe revealed he had offers from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, but his heart was always with Leeds, with whom he enjoyed his biggest honour: playing in the Champions League at Elland Road.
This dedication made 'The Chief' a fans' favourite at Leeds, and he was approached by an emerging band that wanted to adopt the name 'Kaizer Chiefs' after his former club. "They came to ask me if they could name their band after my former club. I remember they looked like quite scruffy students. I said 'sure', but they needed to change the Z to an S because the real Kaizer [Motaung] would not be happy."
Kaiser Chiefs went on to enjoy considerable success on the UK music scene.
Tears and charities
Radebe captained South Africa at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, although his first appearance on the world stage ended in a 3-0 defeat by Les Bleus. "It was not that great and I had to mark Zinedine Zidane," he recalled.
Four years later, Bafana Bafana need a point from their final group game to advance, and a Radebe header left them at 2-2 with Spain in the second half. However, Real Madrid forward Raul struck the game's fifth and final goal, leaving the defender devastated. "After that game, I stood in the dressing room and cried," he said.
Radebe did a lot of charity work during his career and he continues to help others. "People don't love you because you play football, they love you because you are a person," he said.
Radebe is an SOS Children's Village Ambassador and does work with the Local Organising Committee for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. He also does endorsements with companies who have social upliftment programmes.
It is clear that Lucas Radebe is an inspiration off the pitch, just as he was on it.