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