NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 4 – ‘The Chief’, as he was affectionately known, is South Africa’s most famous football export.
A man who epitomises the journey that South African football has taken from 1992 to hosting the World Cup in 2010.
First called up to Bafana Bafana in 1992, he has been through every single step that the rainbow nation has taken from international wilderness to hosting the biggest football bonanza in the world.
As a South African, Lucas Valeriu Radebe has been through it all. Brought up in the Soweto township, surviving a shooting in 1991 to playing in England and captaining the team at the 1998 and 2002 World Cup.
Personally, he has faced and overcome tough challenges including the passing on of his wife last year after battle with cancer.
And he has handled each situation with the same cool persona, charisma and gentleness that highlighted his playing style.
Calm, composed, strong but fair in the tackle and neat in possession, Radebe’s calm authority and leadership stood out and such a fair player he received the Fifa Fair Play Award in 2000 for his role in promoting football and eradicating racism.
Nelson Mandela paid him the greatest compliment in Leeds "This is my hero," he is said to have told dignitaries adding that Radebe was his idol.
Now retired, Radebe is back in South Africa. Helping kids in Soweto, Radebe is also the Fifa ambassador for 2010.
Meeting him in person during a Fifa Awareness tour a week ago, he appears smaller from his days as an imperious centre back. But he is just as gregarious off the pitch. Cheerful and jovial – he portrays the look of a man totally at ease with himself.
We have an hour before he had to pick his daughter from school and for that duration he had a dozen African journalists glued to his every word.
Radebe is quick to stress the importance of hosting the World Cup.
“There is no bigger tournament than the World Cup in sport so I think its going to leave a great legacy. For us it’s even greater to have it because we were only admitted back to the international fold just a short while ago which shows what we have achieved in that time.”
“It’s a dream come true. The local young boys will get an opportunity to watch their role models and idols, icons which is fantastic because it will leave a legacy and improve their lives. Football is especially important in the black community. They need to see it as more than a hobby.”
And having skippered South Africa to two World Cups, Radebe knows just how important the competition is.
“There are different levels in the game but world cup is the highest. You can play club football but that’s just one of the stages. It is where you want to play and test your ability as well as raising your profile.”
Traditionally the winners of the World Cup tend to be drawn from the continent hosting the World Cup. But for Brazil which won it in Europe and Asia, the home continents tend to provide the winners.
So with Africa hosting the rest of the world, is it Africa’s time? Can an African side lift the Jules Rimet trophy?
“It’s possible especially with the impact that Africans are making in Europe. Even the Cup of Nations is now very well respected and the quality is exceptional,” says Radebe.
“Dreams come true and we believe in dreams. For the World Cup to be in Africa has been a long term dream and it’s a reality that one team can win. I think one of the African teams will get to the final, I think it will be close. We certainly have the ability.”
Pressed on, he gives a few names, “We have Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt are also in there and South Africa with luck,” he adds.
How well the home team performs usually helps keep the tournament alive as Germany’s incredible run in 2006 proved. And since Mexico in 1986, every home team has at least reached the second round with South Korea and Germany reaching the semi finals of the last two tournaments.
But South Africa’s Bafana Bafana has had a so-so build up. Over the last decade, the boys as they are popularly known have steadily declined culminating in the failure to qualify for the final round of the 2010 African Cup of Nations.
Despite hiring the legendary Carlos Alberto Parreira and then Santana, they seem nowhere near the quality of the 96-2002 teams.
“You know what? Its going to be tough, it’s not easy you can have the best coaches in the world but if you do not have a proper team, and players who are willing to pull together, it will be hard. At least now we know who will make the team-who will be in the squad and of course we have Steve Pienaar, Benni McCarthy , Aaron Mokoena so the coach will have a few options.”
But why has it been so hard to scale the heights of the previous teams?
“Once we achieved what we did, it was going to be hard for the coming up players to emulate us. It’s like becoming president after Madiba which is tough,” he points out.
“Then we had players who had matured, who had great stature, who were disciplined and knew what it meant to represent the country and who wanted after all those years of apartheid and way from international football wanted to achieve and get RSA back to international fold.”
“The skill factor and talent was unlimited-we had Mark Fish, Benny McCarthy, John Moshoeu, Doctor Khumalo and Phil Masinga. We had a mixture of young and old and with Clive Barker able to steer and build the team. The secret for that success was the time that we spent together as a team from 1992. Most of the players who played then had come through from the same structure.”
Radebe says that the new generation of players is not as focused and dedicated, “Now its all about the money and discipline. With the money involved, the new generation are not able to manage their money properly. They do not get the responsibility of the game and what is needed.”
But why would South Africa struggle? They have the tenth richest league in the world not to mention good infrastructure.
“There are too many individual teams sponsorships. We have three best teams sponsored but the first division needs the money, second division too. The structure is not proper. There is need to have one that goes all the way down to the grassroots.”
“Most of us started in the townships; schools then worked our way up. Then there was focus in getting home-grown talent but it doesn’t happen anymore. Now there is a lot of money involved and there is a lot at stake so the clubs want to buy success which gives little room for grooming of talent.”
He feels that there are roles that former players could have played to help prepare for 2010, “We could be used more especially with the experience that we have. Ex-players can bounce back the experience they have to those upcoming youngsters. To let them know about success of the game and other elements involved in the sport.”
Brought up in Soweto near Johannesburg, Radebe was spotted and signed by Kaiser Chiefs as a midfielder. However tragedy almost struck in 1991 when he was shot while walking in the street but he escaped and in 1994, he and Philemon Masinga joined Leeds United.
“One needs courage hardwork and resilience especially in England because they are sceptical of foreigners and you have to prove that you got what it takes.”
But The Chief overcame that going on to skipper Leeds in its most successful season in recent times. They reached the champions league semi finals in 2000 and finishing third in the Premier League.
“My being captain showed that we have capability of leading European teams. We built a lot of trust in the people and it was about acceptance and this was a sign of that trust.”
Such was his popularity that he inspired the name of a popular British band -Kaiser Chiefs band. Last year, a local Leeds Brewery asked for suggestions on a new Beer name and the most popular suggestion was ‘Radebeer’, showing the Leeds fans’ fond admiration of Lucas.
The Yorkshire club was causing ripples in the premier league when Radebe was at his peak and he is saddened by what has befallen the club which is now in league one- afar cry from playing Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
“If you can’t compete with the likes of Chelsea and Man U financially, the quality is not there anymore and the quality that got us there is not there because of mismanagement of the club which saw it spiralling in the wrong direction.”
“It’s a great club and if you look at the premiership, it’s not the same anymore without Leeds.”
Radebe recalls his days as top African stopper with pride, “Mehdi Ben Slimane gave me problems and Tony Yeboah. I wish I was still playing now, I could have given Eto’o a few lessons,” he cheekily adds.
Unsurprisingly, his most memorable game was the African Cup of Nations final in 1996, “it created such an amazing buzz. It was a dream come true and South Africa was on top of its game. And qualifying for the World Cup in the match against Congo with Philemon (Masinga) scoring that goal was absolutely special.”
A defender’s defender, Radebe is categorical what forms the base of a team, “It’s a great art that I loved doing, It was what I did best. You cannot build a house from top-you need a proper foundation in order to succeed.”
Does he miss the game? Does he wish he could lace up his boots and jog onto the Soccer City stadium on June 13 next year?
“I miss the game a lot – not the playing part but being fit and keeping in shape. I am disappointed at not being involved with Bafana Bafana but hopefully after the world cup there will be some changes.”
We have been speaking for over an hour and just as he gets up to leave, Capital Sport asks him about losing his wife. It’s the first time in the entire interview that his face darkens and a sadness envelopes it,
“It was the hardest moment of my life. Makes you realise that despite being a successful player, you are also human. We are all the same and that we all go through tough times but I am taking it one day at a time. I am trying to build of my life again.”