Lucas Radebe: The Chief Eternal

There is a line in Julian Casablancas’ 11th Dimension that goes:

America, where cities come together to hate each other in the name of sport.

What Julian apparently didn’t realise is that this is not just an American phenomenon.

This ability to create antipathy seems to reach an apex, at least in European terms, in football. Sure, you get rows at other sporting events, but it’s difficult to imagine the normalisation of obsene chanting and violent gangs within snooker.

With this divisiveness and tribalism, there comes an obvious side-effect: It’s very, very difficult to find a universally liked player. The recent passing of Ugo Ehiogu reminded us that these people exist, but are few and far between – so much so that their passing deeply affects the entire football community.

That brings us to Lucas Radebe, a man Nelson Mandela called his hero and whose name seems to conjure nothing but compliments from fans of the Premier League despite having spent his entire English career with Leeds United, comfortably one of the most hated sides in the land.

SEE ALSO: It’s time to say goodbye to Francesco Totti

Radebe reportedly turned down moves to Manchester United and Roma in favour of staying with the Yorkshire club. They had stolen his heart, and he in turn stole theirs, although there’d be no traditional happily ever after for the two.

The defender retired in England’s second tier, worn down by the battle to retain and later regain Leeds’ Premier League status and a serious knee injury.

He was fighting a losing battle: The challenge was made impossible by the backlash that followed Peter Risdale and David O’Leary spending money like a pair of drunks coming back into the pub after picking up an unexpected win at the bookies, only to awake the next morning with bad heads and trashed living rooms.

Still, Radebe kept trying; he was a player of principles and bravery. Indeed, it is hard to picture somebody growing up as he did flinching at the sight of adversity.

Born Lucas Valeriu Ntuba Radebe, the fourth of 11 children, the man who would go on to captain both Leeds and his nation grew up in a violent area of Johannesburg during a period of time when the country was being ravaged by conflict, torn apart by Apartheid.

Before moving to Leeds, “The Chief” was even caught in crossfire walking back from the market with his mother and siblings. Radebe had paid no attention to the gunfire because of its ubiquitous nature in his neighbourhood, but before he knew it was being rushed to hospital with a bullet lodged in his back.

Remarkably, he was shot again before making the move to Yorkshire – God knows what he thought of Leeds’ supposed ‘hard men’ supporters inventing make-believe wars for themselves with rival ‘fans’ after experiencing conflict on such a real and harrowing level in his homeland.

Howard Wikinson only actually signed the defender to appease Philemon Masinga, with the two signed from Kaiser Chiefs in a double deal. There can be no doubt about which of two made his mark upon the club, and indeed football globally, in the long run.

Staying at Leeds over a decade, Radebe became a hero for club and country. His charisma and easy-going nature made him a favourite throughout England, but naturally it was in his adopted city where he was most adored. A local vote even led to a Leeds brewery creating the ‘Radebeer’ in 2008.

Yorkshire and South Africa may be very different in many ways, but they will always have one thing in common – the desire to raise a glass for The Chief.