As Manchester United pressed home their dominance of the Premier League in its early years, manager Sir Alex Ferguson became increasingly obsessed with putting the club on the map in Europe as well.
The key to this in his mind, it would seem, was improving the quality of the defence, and so virtually every summer the Red Devils dipped into the transfer market for a centre-back.
In 1996, Ronny Johnsen joined form Besiktas; in 1997 Ferguson matched the British record transfer fee for a defender in order to sign Henning Berg from Blackburn; 1998 saw the uncompromising Jaap Stam walk through the doors at Old Trafford.
In 1999, with Johnsen and Stam starting against Bayern Munich, United finally captured the Holy Grail of European football, hoisting Ol’ Big Ears at Camp Nou – the culmination of a long, but ultimately satisfying pursuit.
Glory, however, did little to appease the Ferguson’s ambition. Almost immediately, he trained his sights on a certain Lucas Radebe, hoping to prise him away from Yorkshire.
The man who came to be known as The Chief at Elland Road – no doubt a reference to former club Kaizer Chiefs, but also an acknowledgement of the authority with which he marshalled the Leeds defence – had arrived on Brirish shores in 1994.
After an initial bedding-in period when, by his own admission, he doubted if he would make it in the rough and tumble of the English game, he set about making a name for himself with his calm, often quiet leadership.
Ferguson opined a few years later “everyone should be interested in Lucas”, unabashedly setting forth his admiration of the elegant defender.
Radebe would, however, demur when an offer materialized. Manchester United were willing to pay £10 million to lure him over, but Rhoo opted to remain with Leeds, citing the fierce rivalry between the two sides. “Only the white rose, not the red rose,” he told Supersport in 2015.
Also linked with a move to Old Trafford right around this time was Morocco international Noureddine Naybet.
Unlike Radebe, Naybet had no hang-ups about a mutual club rivalry; based in Spain with Deportivo La Coruna, he was keen to join in the summer of 1999, reportedly for a fee in the region of £6 million.
However, there were concerns when it was discovered Naybet did not have a French passport, as it meant work permit proceedings would need to be set in motion. There was also a potential ankle injury which, despite the player insisting was only minor, proved too big a factor to ignore. The deal fell through, and Ferguson signed Frenchman Mikael Silvestre from Inter instead.
Naybet would get back at United in the Champions League Group Stage in 2001, popping up in the penalty area to sweep home a 90th-minute winner in a 2-1 win at the Riazor.
He would also get over the disappointment by being a part of a historic league title win – the first, and last, of its kind for Deportivo, who kept 12 clean sheets en route to claiming the Spanish crown.
In terms of broad characteristics, both Radebe and Naybet were quite similar: neither was blessed with tremendous speed, but they made up for it with their supreme anticipation, allowing them steal a march on their direct opponents.
🇬🇭 Samuel Kuffour vs Noureddine Naybet 🇲🇦— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) April 24, 2020
A clash of the titans between these two great legends ✌🏼
Who has your backings? 🤔 👇 pic.twitter.com/4hxSYf6UnG
Both were also very comfortable in possession – Radebe was capable of playing in midfield, and the Moroccan’s ability to sortie forward into enemy territory when space opened up made him particularly valuable.
The South African’s injury history probably dictates Naybet would have been the smarter pick, but it is easy to see how either could have slotted in alongside the more physical, aggressive Stam to great effect and, watching an admittedly inspired Fernando Redondo blow through Berg like some hologram at Old Trafford in April 2000, it would be a hard-sell to suggest that neither would have elevated United.
Enough to have retained the Champions League crown?
Probably not, but they would have been part of a United side that blew away the league in 2000: losing only thrice, recording a then-historic 91-point haul and finishing a full 18 points clear of second-place Arsenal. It would be the second of three straight titles on the bounce, a run of dominance that has not been repeated since.
Instead, Africa would have to wait until The Invincibles for a Premier League-winning centre-back in Kolo Toure, an achievement that sees the Ivoirian routinely included above both Naybet and Radebe whenever the reckoning of Africa’s great stoppers is done.
For all their ability then (and there can be little doubt that they brought a level of finesse and anticipation that was uncommon enough that they were prized in their day), there continues to hang around them the whiff of underachievement. With no goals or assists to distinguish them – unlike forwards and creative midfielders – defenders are often the ultimate proxy for the success of the collective.
Greater success at club level to tie them to would, without a doubt, have given them the level of acclaim their skills truly deserved.