When destiny has its hands on you, all you need is a chance! That one opportunity of a lifetime.
And sometimes it comes in the flukiest of ways. Lucas Radebe is testament to that.
In fact, he reveals that his late mother Emily Radebe once told him there was something peculiar about him when he was born on 12 April 1969.
But then the significant day was just another normal Saturday in 1986. Nothing spectacular. Nothing anticipated. But destiny had other ideas for this young Diepkloof lad.
An unexpected guest in the form of the headmaster of Ngotwane High School, Siegfried ‘Bra Zieg’ Hlongwa, arrived at his Soweto home around 9AM. Ngotwane was in the Republic of Bophuthatswana, a territory declared independent by the apartheid regime in 1977.
The man he was after was Rhoo’s elder brother – Abraham ‘Siga’ Radebe – a gifted midfield maestro. “They had not come for me; they wanted my brother who was more talented than I was. He could have easily walked into any top club,” Radebe tells FARPost in a telephonic interview.
But as fate would have it, Siga, who was known for his love for the brown bottle, was not at home. No one knew where he was, but what was certain was that he would return pie-eyed after a few drinks.
Desperate to get this highly recommended young midfielder to Mmabatho, which was the capital of Bophuthatswana, Hlongwa had to endure the long wait.
The idea was to get Siga, who passed on at the age of 57 three years ago, to enrol at Ngotwane while also playing for a Lehurutse-based club run by Hlongwa, ICL Birds. They competed in the Bophuthatswana Soccer League.
The longer they waited, the more awkward it became. At about 2PM, an edgy Emily Radebe suggested they take her younger son, Lucas Radebe. Oddly, the younger boy, aged 16 then, was a goalkeeper. He was not the kind of player they were looking for. The club already had two talented shot stoppers in its books.
“A goalkeeper is the last thing we wanted then, but his mother insisted we take Lucas because his brother was likely to give us problems because of his love for alcohol. But still, it never made sense to take a goalkeeper we had never watched,” Hlongwa, who is aged 71, says.
Reluctantly, he agreed to take this young boy. At the back of his mind, he would use this boy as a bait to return for his elder brother. In any case, it would make sense to have both siblings at Birds.
But Bra Zieg was about to get the shock of his life. He had accidentally unearthed the most talented and versatile fella to ever don the Birds jersey. He had South Africa’s brightest football prospect on his hands.
“After watching him, I said to him, ‘I think you’ll do well in midfield’. He agreed to play in midfield, and he was fantastic. So, he would occasionally switch to defence. He was good wherever we played him,” says Hlongwa, adding that they never bothered to look for the brother again.
In midfield, Hlongwa says, the boy would turn into a remarkable, bodacious anchor-man who effortlessly dictated terms in the middle of the park. The teenage starlet switched to central defence with so much ease, where he would thwart any opposition threat in any way the situation demanded. Sometimes he man-marked the most lethal, older strikers into silence.
It came as no surprise when he caught the eye of Glamour Boys legend Sylvester ‘City’ Kole. The former Amakhosi defender did not waste time, immediately alerting club supremo Kaizer Motaung of this rare gem. The Soweto giants began to track the then-teenager.
Fascinatingly though, when Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe attended one of his matches, Radebe was in between the sticks, and saved two penalties. “I was one of the best goalkeepers, I actually represented Bophuthatswana as a goalkeeper and we played against South Africa,” he recalls.
The two clubs then agreed on terms and a compensation fee of R16 000 was paid to Birds.
“We had wanted R20 000, but we ended up settling for R16 000,” Hlongwa explains.
Rhoo went on to become part of one of the most successful generations of Amakhosi in the early ‘90s. Of course, his progress was hampered when he was shot in the hip while driving to shop for his family in 1991.
“Luckily, the bullet missed organs that would have prevented me from continuing playing although I needed surgery to overcome the injury,” the former national team stalwart says.
In 1994, the universe conspired yet again – this time for the biggest breakthrough of his life. English Premier League side Leeds United desperately wanted to sign his former Bafana teammate, the late Philemon ‘Chippa’ Masinga from Mamelodi Sundowns.
“When they came to fetch Phil, they asked about me because someone had told them about me. Unfortunately, they couldn’t watch me play because I was injured. But it was later decided that I also move to help Phil settle at Leeds,” he explains.
Off he went to Yorkshire in 1994. However, he struggled to adapt to life in England. The weather was totally different from what he was used to, and he was getting homesick. For all his talent, he had started just one match in four months, and made a few brief appearances as a substitute. It frustrated him so much.
Shortly before Christmas of that year, he had his bags packed, an airline ticket in his pocket and was ready to secretly escape from Leeds and fly back to Johannesburg.
“I thought, ‘my bags are packed, I’ve got my ticket, I am just going to go’. I wasn’t going to tell anybody, I was just going,” he says.
Nonetheless, he came back to his senses and made what is seemingly the best decision of his life. He took his hand off the doorknob and stayed.
Another blow was to come his way in a game against Peter Ndlovu’s Coventry City in 1995. He had to be stretchered off the pitch with ruptured ligaments on his knee and not many people believed he would ever play football again.
But ‘The Chief’ fought back to a remarkable recovery towards the end of 1995. Just in the nick of time! He sneaked into the Bafana squad for the historic ‘96 AFCON hosted on home soil. There was no way he’d miss that one. Rhoo wanted to be part of history, and this was evident enough in the few cameo appearances he made after the dramatic recovery.
“It was a career-threatening injury, but I was able to come back. When I look back, I believe everything that happened was for a reason. I was meant to be who I am,” he says authoritatively.
Understandably, The Peacocks were not happy with Bafana coach Clive Barker’s decision. They thought it was a bad idea for Radebe to be included in the AFCON squad. It took a meeting between Barker and Leeds coach Howard Wilkinson for Rhoo to be allowed to join his national teammates for the camp.
Bafana would be crowned champions of Africa at the end of the tournament with Radebe – one of Africa’s best-loved footballers – proudly returning to Yorkshire with a gold AFCON medal.
In April of that year, Rhoo got a chance to relive his goalkeeping days when he was handed the gloves at Old Trafford against a title-chasing Manchester United side at their fortress Old Trafford.
Radebe began the match on the bench when Mark Beeney handled the ball outside of his 18-yard area and referee Keith Cooper had no option but to send him off. Funnily enough, Wilkinson had travelled to Old Trafford without a substitute goalie after dropping John Lukic from the match-day squad entirely because of a poor run of form that had seen Leeds lose 6 of their last 7 games. His only option at that point was to bring The Chief on as an emergency sub.
“I was on the bench as a sub and suddenly a jersey and pair of gloves was thrown at me,” recalls Radebe, who put in one of the best performances by a makeshift goalie that English football has ever seen.
The former Bafana captain pulled off excellent saves from Ryan Giggs, Brian McClair and Andy Cole, as the travelling Leeds fans began to believe that their 10-man side could claim a famous point at the home of their most bitter rivals in the most trying of circumstances. Alas, Radebe’s luck ran out in the 73rd minute.
Former Leeds man Eric Cantona found Roy Keane on the edge of Radebe’s area and fired a low shot past him to give the hosts a 1-0 lead which they were able to see out.
“We weren’t surprised when we heard that he played as a goalkeeper against Manchester United. He had grown up playing that position and he always did it so well,” says Hlongwa.
That great gesture from Radebe is perhaps what made Leeds United fans fall in love with him more. “Sir Alex Ferguson came and congratulated me after the game. Even the referee also congratulated me, and I think Leeds fans will hold that gesture dearly and close to their hearts,” adds Radebe, who made 235 appearances for the club.
A Twitter exchange in August 2019 revealed that ‘Lucas’ continues to be one of the most popular boys’ names in Leeds, with a number of supporters getting in touch after Radebe responded to one fan who had named his son after the former skipper.
“I had known about horses and cats being named after me during my time at Leeds, but after my testimonial match people started coming up and telling me they were naming their kids after me. It’s very kind of them,” he says modestly.
But beyond his cult status at Elland Road, Radebe became a Premier League icon who transcended club loyalty thanks to his wholehearted performances and unwavering commitment to the cause. After rejecting an approach to join Man U having become captain of the vibrant Leeds side which reached the last four of the Champions League in 2001, Radebe’s influence had always extended way beyond the pitch.
When it was time for his testimonial on 2 May 2005, nearly 38 000 supporters crammed into Elland Road to bid farewell to one of Leeds United’s most iconic players.
“I grew with the club and became a Yorkshire man; the relationship is still going on even now. The relationship is still brilliant. I have no regrets turning down Manchester United. Lazio and Roma came but I felt I belonged to Leeds,” says the revered Radebe, who became the club’s skipper at the start of the 1998/99 season.
To add to his honours, the Kaiser Chiefs rock band were christened in honour of his former club. And Leeds fans are probably drinking a pint called Radebeer as they celebrate the return of their club to the topflight.
Their hero down in Johannesburg, who has a stand named after him in their home stadium, is equally elated.
“I had goosebumps the very moment Leeds gained promotion to the EPL. That’s where the club belongs,” says the man voted 54th in the Top 100 Great South Africans in 2004.
Without a doubt, he remains the epitome of loyalty, but it was all thanks to the universe conspiring to propel him to stardom and cult status both at home in Yorkshire.
By Mthokozisi Dube