Radebe: I almost quit Leeds after four months

LONDON - Lucas Radebe is a personal friend of Nelson Mandela, a FIFA ambassador and one of Leeds United's finest players of modern times but he still vividly recalls the grim Christmas when he nearly turned his back on what was destined to be a brilliant future.

It was Christmas 1994 and he had his bags packed, an airline ticket in his pocket and was ready to secretly escape from Leeds and fly back to Johannesburg.

His first few months in the north of England had been tough and he hated the place which now reveres him as an adopted son and one of Leeds finest players of modern times.

"I arrived there knowing nothing about Leeds. Going overseas for me was like walking into a dark room blindfolded.

"I had no idea what to expect, I didn't know anything about Leeds United - and when I arrived it was horrible, I hated it," he told Reuters in an interview.

By the December he had started just one match in four months, made a few brief appearances as a substitute, and explained how he came to be facing a swift return home.

"Nothing was happening for me and I wanted to go. Breaking into the first team under Howard Wilkinson was tough.

"I was only used sparingly. I never played in the big games and I was getting depressed and homesick. Me and (team-mate) Phil Masina used to save up 50 pence pieces to phone home from a payphone. That's how bad it was.

"It was December 1994. The worst part was the weather, it was horrible and I thought, 'my bags are packed, I've got my ticket, I am just going to go'. I wasn't going to tell anybody, I was just going."

But he changed his mind, won a place in the side at the start of a glittering decade of good times and is now lauded as a Leeds great as well as being a personal friend of former South African president Mandela, who has described the 41-year-old as "my hero".

He also works as a FIFA ambassador and his new autobiography, "From the Streets of Soweto to Soccer Superstar," tells his astonishing life story which has seen him rise from a Soweto hoodlum who stole and hijacked cars and became the victim of a street shooting, but is now one of Africa's best-loved footballers.

"I got involved in crime, gangsterism, hijackings. We made sure that when tomorrow came we had something in our stomachs. But that's the lifestyle I knew growing up," he said.

"There were no role models, we didn't have access to TV or international events, it was a day-by-day existence and survival of the fittest."

Radebe's lucky break came through his parents. They sent him away from Soweto at 15 to school in the rural homeland of Bophuthatswana.

There he began to develop into such a superb footballer that he was signed by Kaizer Chiefs. After three years there, reports of a talented centre-back were circulated to clubs in England and Scotland.

"I know Dundee United were interested and I could have gone there, and some clubs in London. But Leeds made the best offer and I went there instead. I was already 25, I wasn't young but had no real idea what I was heading for. I had never been out of South Africa, I didn't have a clue," he laughed.

PERSONAL TRAGEDY

Personal tragedy has blighted his life too including the death of his 34-year-old wife Feziwe from cancer two years ago leaving him to bring up his three children alone.

But everything would have been different if he had opened that door in his digs in Leeds all those years ago and gone home.

"Standing there, I realised the opportunity I had, and the responsibility I had, not just of representing myself but also my country and of the chance to open some doors for other African players.

"I changed my mind. I thought I would rather fail having tried than not try at all. I had been through all the dark days of apartheid, I had been shot, I had had nothing but I survived. That's what transformed me.

"Coming through that childhood in which I saw many of my friends killed or jailed, built my character and helped me face the challenges in Leeds - and George Graham coming in as manager was absolutely brilliant for me. He gave me my chance and the great days began."

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

In his decade with the club, Leeds challenged for honours, reached the Champions League semi-finals and between 1998 and 2002 finished between third and fifth in the Premier League.

Their recent revival after slipping down to the third tier in England pleases him and he was given a hero's welcome when he went back to visit Elland Road last week.

But right now other matters are occupying his thoughts - not least the legacy the World Cup finals will bring to South Africa and Africa as a whole.

"If somebody had told me in my lifetime that we would have hosted the World Cup in Soweto, I would never have believed it. It was a tough, tough place to grow up, I played football in the street, we had little in the way of facilities.

"But just the fact that Soweto hosted the World Cup was a triumph in itself."

He says the opening day of the World Cup was one of the most emotional of his life.

"I was doing TV with Francois Pienaar, the winner of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and when both teams came out, I am telling you, we looked at each other, we had goosebumps, we were like kids. It was such a great achievement, it was the greatest thing."

The stadiums, he says, will serve as an inspiration to future generations.

"I am sure the World Cup, the new stadiums, everything, will take us to another level. We don't want to be like Japan or Korea who demolished the stadiums after spending so much money on them in 2002.

"For me they are an investment for youth, for the grass roots of the game. The stadiums stand as a symbol of inspiration for the upcoming generations and can pay dividends for the young for years."

And what of the former Soweto bad boy who is now friends with Mandela?

"That is truly amazing. I go round to see him with my kids for lunch or tea sometimes. He has been an amazing friend since my wife died and, well, it's a long way from where I started."