Leon Wobschall looks back on the career of Lucas Radebe.
This is my hero. That is how global icon Nelson Mandela once described Lucas Radebe and that tells you everything you need to know about a colossal man who is as courageous and selfless off the football pitch as he was on it.
Brought up in abject poverty in Soweto as one of 14 children, the lion-hearted former Leeds United and South Africa captain has fought adversity for much of his amazing life.
He famously survived being shot in the back while walking down the street and saw his world turned upside down when his wife Feziwe died of cancer in October 2008 at the tragically early age of 38.
And on the field of play, the redoubtable centre-half battled back from several potentially career-threatening injuries, skippering United to a fourth-placed Premier League finish in 1998-99 and Champions League qualification – for the first time – the following season.
Away from the pitch, the honours bestowed upon the hugely-respected Radebe – idolised in both his homeland and adopted city of Leeds – have flowed thick and fast since his retirement in 2005.
But beneath the kind persona and altruistic nature which has seen him raise thousands upon thousands of pounds for charities, beat the heart of a man who was a formidable defensive warrior in his playing days. Commitment, strength – embodied in his fiercesome tackling and man-marking skills – awareness, pace and a touch of class, Radebe had the full defensive package that earned the massive respect of team-mates, rivals and the Whites supporters who worshipped him.
One man well qualified to talk about the footballing prowess of the man known as “The Chief” is fellow United defender Dominic Matteo, who admits Radebe was as competitive on the pitch as he was benevolent away from it.
Matteo said: “Lucas was an all-around good guy, but one who also liked a tackle on the sly. Yes, he’s a nice guy, but he didn’t mind booting you in training! All the top players have to have that in their locker and Lucas wasn’t scared of doing that. His nickname used to be ‘The Rash’, because as a defender he just wouldn’t leave you alone and he was one of those guys who would always wear his studs for training.
“You always knew what you were going to get out of Lucas. He was a solid defender who read the game well and a great ambassador for Leeds and his own country and a model pro.
“First and foremost, a good defender defends properly and everything else is a bonus, I always say that as a defender and it was my motto. It’s about doing your job first and defending well. Lucas was very much like that.
“I remember in training once, we were working on defending a free-kick where as soon as the opposition took it, we’d run out and catch them offside. But Lucas actually stayed in and it was something like 10 v 1 against him; he might have even managed to get the ball away! He was a born defender who would defend any situation.
“He was also a leader. There are different kinds of captains. I was more of a moaner and a talker whereas Lucas led by example. He didn’t really open his mouth on a football field but he led through his deeds, which was his way of doing things.
“As a defender, I watched a lot of him and he was one of those you would look at and see what you could pick up. I’m sure a lot of kids also used to look at Lucas, in terms of how he played.”
Quite simply, it’s difficult not to like anything about Radebe, a revered figure who once had a beer named in his honour in Leeds while an aspiring pop band famously called themselves after his old club, step forward the Kaiser Chiefs.
And Radebe, currently a FIFA ambassador, even managed to turn down a move to Manchester United into the bargain...
Matteo added: “I’ll always remember Lucas for his nice smile and being a good guy.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him. I don’t stay in contact with too many of the Leeds boys, but Lucas is one of them and he deserves all the plaudits.
“He’s actually a very, very shy guy who doesn’t like a lot of attention. Back home in South Africa, he had a few disguises and I remember saying once: ‘You are having a laugh, Lucas, you can’t wear those false glasses and dodgy moustache coming out with me!’.
“He used to say he sometimes had to watch football in hotel suites with his friends as if he went out and about, he’d get too much attention.
“But he’s a very sincere guy, what you see is what you get with him. A big family man as well; after everything that’s happened, he’s very close to his children and makes sure they are alright. A top guy and a great footballer.”
HOW YOU VOTED:
Lucas Radebe 41%
Norman Hunter 28%
Jack Charlton 23%
Jonathan Woodgate 4%
Chris Fairclough 1%
Gordon McQueen 1%
Rio Ferdinand 1%
Chris Whyte 0%