Lucas Radebe: ‘My football career began behind my parents’ back’

Tell us about your background and fondest childhood memories?

I was born in Diepkloof in Soweto. I come from a big family: I am the fourth of six boys and four girls, but both my parents and my eldest brother have since passed on. I grew up in a close-knit family where it was not only us as siblings, but we were always surrounded by our extended family. From that, I think I’ve learnt to be competitive. We used to compete for food and for a place to sleep, but we were having fun and enjoying life where everyone was included.

What is interesting is that we were all sporty. I think my older brother who passed on three years ago was one of the best athletes while my sisters were great netballers, but I am the only one who took sport to another level. I also have uncles who played sports and my dad said he was a boxer, but I have never seen him in action. At least with my uncles I have seen pictures as evidence and with my brothers and sisters; I’ve watched them play sports. These were my role models when we were growing up … I remember we didn’t have TV to watch professional football, we used to go watch them in the local grounds, which was brilliant, and that’s how we got to be more involved in sport. Sport runs in the family. My mother was active, she owned a football team called Diepkloof Leeds United, she also headed a netball team and she was a community-builder. 

What were your dreams and goals growing up?

To be honest, where I grew up our careers were driven by our parents. They wanted us to be teachers or doctors, because they never realised [there were]  other careers outside these ones. Our black families prided themselves on  someone who was a professional in those careers. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. For me football started as a hobby, every day after school, when I didn’t have anything to do in the township, I would participate in soccer games. But from day one, I knew that football was a calling for me, because I’ve always worked in a big number of teams, I was competitive and always on top. However, my parents encouraged me to study because they valued the importance of education. During the 80s, obviously, it was the time of the riots and the schools were not really going the way they were supposed to be. And then I left Johannesburg to further my studies at Lehurutshe in the North West. I was in a different environment, a boy from Soweto was now herding cattle, that’s all one could do apart from school. I grew up there and that’s where my football career journey began behind my parents’ back. 

So your parents did not want you to pursue football as a career. 

My parents were very strict, especially my mother. She did not support me to pursue my career in soccer. I remember when I started playing football as a goalkeeper I got kicked in the face and that’s when my parents got to know for the first time about me playing football, my mother was upset about me playing football behind their back. So that means being injured I missed many school days and classes to heal from my injuries. I was reprimanded but once I got better I went back to play again. When I completed matric in 1988 that is when Kaizer Chiefs came around and the rest is history.

What does family mean to you?

I am a proud father of eight and I value family so much because it plays a critical role in my life. Family has shaped the person I am today and I always encourage people to build a strong family foundation. The proper structure is to get married first and eventually everything falls into place. Football can be a monster or your worst enemy because you have all the money and everything you need, you become exposed to many things, but once the foundation is strong, it is not easy to fall prey. I have always dedicated my life to my family. In my hectic schedule I always take some time off to spend with my wife and my two-year-old daughter: we go out for lunch and morning walks just to bond and spend time together. 

Lucas Radebe of Leeds United on the ball against Bradford City during the FA Carling Premiership match at Valley Parade in Bradford, England. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Are you living your dream?

Definitely. I have played against the giants all over the world. I remember in the 90s when I was in Italy seeing big international stars for the first time with my naked eyes, it was as if I was daydreaming, then competing with some of the greatest players on the pitch was like a dream — it was a big deal for me.  

How do you want to be remembered?

I don’t want people to remember me for the trophies I have won but I want to be remembered for what I’ve accomplished and the impact I’ve made on the soccer field. Representing our country at Leeds United is a big achievement. Most importantly, as the Radebe family we started the Emily Tlaleng Foundation, to honour my late mother through school sport tournaments. Our aim is to grow it big by empowering young people through sports and upliftment initiatives. The legacy I want to leave is to build a community hub in Diepkloof where [they] will use the facilities for sports empowerment.  

On 5 September, the English Premier League paid tribute and celebrated 27 years since [you] signed for Leeds. Do you think Mzansi is celebrating you as a legend, as it should be?

I am honoured to leave a mark as a Leeds legend. It is unfortunate that here in our country we don’t celebrate our heroes that paved the way for us, it is only when they have passed on that we want to honour and celebrate them. It is sad that our history has been wiped out.

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