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Fish and Radebe symbols of the 'new' South Africa

© Reuters Limited 2001

By Mark Gleeson

JOHANNESBURG, June 28 (Reuters) - Mark Fish and Lucas Radebe, two of South Africa's most popular players, grew up on different sides of the racial track in apartheid South Africa.

And while they now rub shoulders in the lucrative English premier league, playing for Charlton Athletic and Leeds United respectively, their contrasting backgrounds offer a fascinating insight into life under apartheid as chronicled in a new book.

Despite their different origins the pair combined to play vital roles in helping their country to win the 1996 African Nations Cup and qualify for the World Cup finals in France.

They have crossed the racial divide to emerge as heroes of the 'new' South Africa, a central theme to Graeme Friedman's book 'Madiba's Boys".

Madiba is the clan name of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who has written a foreword to the book.

In it, he describes Fish and Radebe as symbols of the country. "They both fought for a chance and, given it, they rose to the challenge."

The pair have both captained club and country - Radebe leading Leeds United and Fish skippering promotion-seeking Bolton Wanderers before his move to Charlton last year.

Radebe has been outstanding in a young Leeds side that reached the Champions League semifinals last season, while Fish has settled into a Charlton team that has continued to defy expectations by consolidating their premier leaue status.

They have each made over 60 appearances for their country but had to overcome impoverished backgrounds - Radebe's early life in the riot-torn townships of Soweto and Fish's battle with a broken home and life on the wrong side of the tracks in the white suburbs of the capital Pretoria.

Rioting and deaths
Radebe hails from Diepkloof in Soweto, an area which saw much of the rioting and deaths at the time of the students uprising against the government in 1976.

It left an indelible impression on him and he was involved in car hijackings and general delinquency before his parents moved him out to the countryside to take him away from the criminal elements of township life.

The book details Radebe's political activism as a teenage youth in Soweto and the shooting incident that almost cost him his playing career.

He received a bullet in the back while travelling in a car with some relatives to get cold drinks for his parents. He was lucky because it did not do any long-term damage.

The book also paints the picture of a close-knit family, with his parents and nine siblings struggling to survive in the turmoil of the time.

Fish's wild ways and nonchalant approach to realising his huge sporting potential are made clearer by the heart-rending circumstances of his early childhood.

His mother was forced to flee his violent father just a month after Fish was born in 1974.

Neither player set out to be a professional footballer.

Radebe, who started his career as a goalkeeper, had to be cajoled to leave his teacher training college to join South Africa's glamour club Kaizer Chiefs even though it is the dream of most of the country's soccer-playing youngsters.

Signing for Leeds United happened almost by accident after he was spotted by one of the Yorkshire club's scouts who was in South Africa looking at his compatriot Phil Masinga.

Fish, a striker in his early days before being converted into a defender, thought being paid for playing soccer would be a useful diversion while he grappled with the uncertainty of what he was going to do after finishing high school.

Within five years he was playing in Italy's Serie A, joining Lazio soon after the 1996 Nations Cup triumph and helping his club Orlando Pirates to win the African Champions League.

Radebe's story details the frustration of playing at Leeds under Howard Wilkinson and his battles with injury. Fish had a run-in with Colin Todd at Bolton before moving to London.

Both players also touch on the growing difficulty of combining club commitments with the pull of international matches with Bafana Bafana.

They make it clear that leading African players in Europe can no longer carry the burden of satisfying both club and country, which is likely to have more impact on their future appearances for South Africa than for their English teams.

Ironically, Radebe, a father of three, emerges as happier and more settled in the tranquility of the English countryside than back home with his peers.

The book, written by a psychotherapist, was launched in South Africa last week, with both Radebe and Fish contributing to the publishing costs.

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