When, in 2010, the Professional Footballers’ Association marked Lucas Radebe’s career with their Special Merit Award, he joined a list of legendary recipients of the honour that includes Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Tom Finney, Sir Matt Busby, Sir Stanley Matthews, Pele, Brian Clough, Eusebio, Sir Bobby Robson, George Best and Sir Alex Ferguson.
During the ceremony, a letter from the Nelson Mandela Foundation was read out: ‘As captain of Bafana Bafana and throughout his distinguished career playing for Leeds United in England, Lucas has always upheld the highest values of sportsmanship and fair play, combined with sporting excellence.
He began playing in South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs, before transferring to Leeds United, where he played 200 matches for the Yorkshire side. During his spells at these clubs, he picked up the nicknames “Rhoo” and “The Chief”. He became captain of Leeds United and also of the South African national team, most notably at World Cup 2002. Nelson Mandela said of Radebe: “This is my hero.”
In 1994, Radebe and another South African player, Philemon “Chippa” Masinga, moved to Leeds United for a transfer fee of £250,000. Radebe was only included in the deal to keep Masinga happy; as it turned out, he became the more valuable investment.
Initially the move was not a success; Radebe did not agree with then Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson, and suffered injuries which prevented him for earning a regular first team place. However, when Wilkinson was replaced by George Graham, his career flourished and Radebe was made captain of the team for the 1998–99 season. Whilst he was captain, Leeds enjoyed a period of relative success; in the 1998–99 season, they finished fourth in the FA Premier League, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. During the 1999–2000 season, Leeds finished third in the Premier League and qualified for the following season’s Champions League, where they eventually reached the semi-finals. During this time, Lucas turned down the chance to move to Manchester United, A.C. Milan and Roma. Alex Ferguson commented at the time, “Everyone should be interested in Lucas.”
In 2000, he was awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award.
However, in 2000 Radebe sustained serious knee and ankle injuries, which kept him out of the game for almost two years, and subsequently found it difficult to regain his form and his place in the team.
Radebe was first included in the South African national team in 1992 and he made his international debut on 7 July 1992 against Cameroon.
In 1996, he was a member of the South African team that won the African Nations Cup. This triumph, coupled with the country’s earlier victory in the Rugby World Cup helped to establish the country as a real force in the world of sport.
Radebe was also the captain of the South African national football team during both the 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2002 FIFA World Cup’s. South Africa failed to reach the knockout stages on both occasions; however Radebe did get on the score sheet in 2002.
He earned 70 caps for South Africa and scored two goals during his international career, with his last match being against England on 22 May 2003.
After retiring, Radebe was influential in South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup. He could also be seen working as a pundit for South African television, and during ITV’s coverage of the tournament.
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