Former Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe bares it all in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA at the SOS Village at Ennerdale, Johannesburg
How has life been in retirement?
I have been a footballer all my life and it’s a big part of me. If you played football for a long time, you get to a point that you don’t want to retire from it, especially at those times when your body is calling for rest – it is usually a very difficult period. But life goes on. For me I believe it’s an opportunity to turn another page by helping people who supported us all along in our careers – that’s by nurturing young talents.
What are you doing at the moment?
Knowing where I come from and having always had the passion to give back to the society, I am currently involved with the South African Football Association. I am in the technical committee there. Also, I am a part of a group that is organising school tournaments because we know that to sustain and grow talents, we need to start from the basics. Knowing that people who are in the grassroots look up to us, I have to be involved in how the talents are discovered and groomed into world-class players. It is our duty to go to them and help them build their football careers. At the moment I am very busy with a lot of things which is helping me to give back to the society.
Recently in June, Bafana Bafana defeated the Super Eagles in Nigeria for the first time in a competitive tie. What does the victory signify for South African football?
I think for us, it ticked the box that we had been trying to tick a long time ago. South Africa have a bitter rivalry with Nigeria and we know that each time the two sides meet, Nigeria always parade a quality team. It was always South Africa who struggled in the ties. The time we had the best team in the history of South African football – in 1996 when we won the African Cup of Nations – Nigeria were not there. We knew if Nigeria were there that year, it would have been one of the games that would still be in the history books today. But having Bafana beat the Eagles for the first time in a competitive match and on Nigerian soil is a big joy to South Africans – whether a former footballer or those who even haven’t played the game before – and it will always be remembered in the annals of South African football. People were celebrating in the country after that match – which shows how much it meant to them. We, former South African footballers, will always be proud of the boys; at least South Africa has beaten Nigeria once – even if it was not in our generation. It was a great plus to the youngsters who played that game and it opened a new chapter in the Nigeria/ South Africa rivalry.
What do you think your generation of players didn’t have to destabilise the Eagles each time you met them?
We were were just starting while the Nigerians were firmly established, so we couldn’t crack them. Nigeria had won more AFCON titles than we have and they had been to the World Cup while we hadn’t – they had more experience than we had. Honestly, back then we were always looking forward to playing against Nigeria to see if we could crack the team and beat them. A match against Nigeria was always a yardstick for us back then to gauge how well we were doing or not – we had the mindset that if we were able to beat Nigeria, who are African football giants, then we had actually arrived. As individuals also, it was a yardstick for us – playing against (Austin) Okocha, (Rashidi) Yekini, (Daniel) Amokachi and the rest was a dream for us. Nigeria had the talent, experience and the big names on the continent and we just couldn’t find the missing link to beat them. The Nigerian team, which our generation played against, were really a special and talented one. I believe that each country has a time when such things happen in their football. Nigeria had that team that could go the extra mile and represent Africa well on the world stage and we (South Africa) were not too far behind them, but we couldn’t match them.
In 1998, you led South Africa to the World Cup for the first time…
(Cuts in) For us, the qualification itself was such a big achievement. We were happy to qualify for the World Cup and even without kicking the ball yet, we were already fulfilled. To represent and be a part of that generation was very special because every player wants to compete on the biggest stage – and for football, that is the World Cup. For us as a country, it was a monumental achievement and for me as an individual, leading that team to France ’98 was a dream come true. It wasn’t only about representing the team, it was about representing the South African nation – it symbolised where we came from as a country and it was very amazing.
In 2000, your club Leeds United got to the semi-final of the Champions League, before losing to Valencia. How would you describe the experience?
It was a lovely experience I had at Leeds – we really had a great team then. Leading Leeds United to the biggest stage in European football – the Champions League – was a great achievement and experience for me. It was also a great representation of Africa. I and Phil Masinga were the first South Africans to play in the English Premier League – there were other Africans doing well in England, Spain and all over Europe. I saw it as an opportunity to represent the continent very well alongside other African players in the league – like Tony Yeboah of Ghana and Austin Okocha. Our performance then showed what Africans could do in football. Back then, I think the English didn’t have enough confidence in African players but we went there and showed them the talent that we had. I think the impression we made then paved the way for the current crop of African players doing well in the league now like Kelechi Iheanacho, Riyad Mahrez, among others.
For country and club, you were a defender known to score great goals from headers. Which was your best goal?
One of the best goals I remember scoring was in 1999 when we played a Champions League game against Spartak Moscow at home. We lost the first leg 2-1 away. Playing at home, we needed a goal to go through to the next round. It wasn’t coming on time. Towards the last five minutes of the match, we got a corner kick and I remembered that I rose highest and scored a header from the kick. It was an absolute experience I had that day. I have never felt that way before. The stadium erupted. It was unbelievable as an African playing at such a big stage to score the all-important goal for Leeds in that game. It is one of the moments I will never forget in my life. I also won’t forget a match against Manchester United, where I was in goal. It showed the versatility of Africans because I believe that if one gets such opportunities, one should take it with both hands. Whichever position you are given as a player, just do your best to stand out.
Do you see an African country getting to the semi-final of the World Cup soon?
It is tough to say how soon an African country can get to the semi-final of the World Cup. When South Africa hosted it on behalf of Africa, it was the chance we had to have at least make a statement as a continent but we couldn’t, we were just close. I think we are just one step back in terms of management and organisation of the teams. We always have problems in terms of financing the teams and other issues, which derailed us a bit. In order for us to get better and compete against the best, we need ex-players to get involved. We need them to take control and share their experience, love and passion for the game, which is very important.
Who would you say was your toughest opponent during your playing period?
My toughest opponents were Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer. It is very difficult to single out players because you play against the best players in the world every week – Henry, Michael Owen and others. That was the level of competition we had then. Henry was problematic with his speed and it was amazing playing against him. I also played against Okocha, very skillful with the ball – it was something they couldn’t get used to in England. Those two (Henry and Shearer) however, stand out.
What were your best and worst moments as a footballer?
My worst moment should be when Leeds United got relegated from the Premier League. Such a great club getting demoted meant they lost all the great players they had. The relegation gave other clubs in the Premier League the advantage to sign one or two of those great players for themselves. My best moment would be in 1996 when I captained South Africa to win the AFCON. It stands out and playing against the best meant a lot for us.
How did the country celebrate the win in 1996?
It was an amazing celebration. It was a dream come true; an unbelievable experience. We could hardly believe it and it lifted us on the continent. That was when Europe began to see us as a challenge.