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the square ball week: heroics

the square ball week: heroics

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Maybe football and politics shouldn’t mix, but if we only ever did what we’re supposed to do, nothing would ever get done. If Nelson Mandela had only ever done what people said he should have done, South Africa would be a very different place today.

If it wasn’t for Nelson Mandela, and the struggle of black South Africans during decade after decade of minority rule, players like Lucas Radebe and Phil Masinga would never have been able to play for Leeds United. Football and politics shouldn’t mix, but we owe one of our best defenders of the modern era to the fighting spirit of Mandela. 

If you look at the newspaper front pages this morning and think none of what you see affected you, just remember that it was partly thanks to that man that Leeds could stop playing Mark Jackson and Carlton Palmer as centre backs. 

Nelson Mandela clearly understood the importance of the way Lucas Radebe transformed under George Graham from the lost and bewildered left winger of the Wilko era, ready to fly home, to a commanding and inspiring central defender who was wanted at Old Trafford. “This is my hero,” Mandela said of Radebe. It wasn’t just that Mandela was sick of Carlton Palmer too; but he knew that the achievements of Lucas Radebe in football had a resonance that amplified Mandela’s achievements at the ballot box.

South Africa changed forever when Mandela stood for election, and won; it was 1994, the year when Radebe, as he told The Square Ball in an interview in 2010, “was just going to take my bags, my ticket and go to the airport.” But as he wrote in a letter to Nelson Mandela’s memory this morning, “When times were tough in my early days in Leeds, away from South Africa, I drew motivation from your courage and tenacity,” and he stayed, and he grew, and he became the Lucas Radebe whose name is sung at Elland Road to this day. 

Lucas grew as South Africa grew, and as Nelson Mandela grew. Radebe captained South Africa to two World Cups in the post-apartheid era, and was an influential presence when the competition came to South Africa in 2010. When people looked for a symbol of the new South Africa, they had a choice between its president, Nelson Mandela, or the captain of its football team. Many of them chose Lucas.

Football and politics shouldn’t mix, but football can represent politics to the people in a way that pure politics can’t represent itself. The fine detail of the negotiations and hard work that went into putting a country on a new path are recorded in the history books, but there is an easier way to explain it. Radebe captained South Africa’s football team at the World Cup in 1998. Ten years earlier, because of the world’s abhorrence of the racial segregation imposed on South African football by apartheid, there had been no South African football team for Radebe to be captain of. It’s a very rough explanation of a complicated and important issue, but that’s what Lucas Radebe’s presence on a football pitch was: a rough explanation of a complicated and important issue.

“The sports history books in South Africa will show statistics and victories,” Lucas wrote this morning. “What they won’t show, however, was that it was Madiba Magic that forged those results and performances; and united a country and its people along the way.” For that, though, you only had to look at Radebe play. With the recent announcements about Radebe becoming involved in the club again, there have been conversation about how good he was as a defender – didn’t he give away a lot of penalties? Wasn’t he caught on the turn quite a lot? It’s probably all fair. It’s also probably all irrelevant. 

Injuries denied us the sight of Radebe at what would have been his peak, so we’ll never know how good he could have truly been. But his style of play – tough but smiling, elegant but hard, committed to winning for Leeds as much as he was committed to representing the best of his country – will always be remembered more than when he gave away some soft penalty or other.

The story, with Lucas, is more important than the mistakes along the way. “I was so proud to welcome you to Leeds, my home away from home, and I know the pride you felt in my accomplishments,” Radebe wrote to Mandela today. If being Mandela’s hero, and in a sense his representative on the world stage of sport, was an inspiration to Lucas, it must surely also have been a burden. The worst Mark Jackson would get after a mistimed tackle would be a dressing down from George Graham; Lucas Radebe would be letting down a young and hopeful country. No pressure, then. 

Making a heavy load seem light was one of the characteristics of Nelson Mandela, though. People will remember him laughing, as if 27 years of political imprisonment in the name of a cause that freed millions of people could be laughed off. But it must be laughed off, otherwise you waste the opportunity eventually presented by freedom. You see all this in Radebe’s smile, too. His Leeds career was bookended by hard times; the first cold winter in Beeston that nearly sent him home, and the last testimonial match, which his wife Feziwe left at half time, in pain from the cancer that eventually claimed her life. In the years in between he carried the burdens of trying to meet the expectations of the Leeds support, of forging a career for himself and his family in a foreign country, while at home tumult and change gripped South Africa, with Radebe as one of its figureheads.

That’s a lot to contend with. But contend with it Lucas did, and does, and smile he did, and does. There will be a lot of sadness in South Africa this morning, but there will be a lot of thankfulness, too. “Part of your legacy is that so many of us are stirred to carry the torch,” wrote Lucas, ending his letter: “No doubt, that Madiba Magic will live on. Thank you Tata. Much love.”

Inspiration, humility, gratitude and love. If you think football and politics shouldn’t mix, or that Nelson Mandela has no relevance to your daily paper, look to his hero, and to how he lives his life in Mandela’s image; to the way Lucas Radebe played for our football club, and represented our city.

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