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Bearing The Burden Of Talent

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This article is from an African publication "New African".


Possessing uncanny vision and sublime passing skills, midfielder Steven Pienaar is undoubtedly South Africa's best player at the moment. But can the 28-year-old shoulder the heavy weight of expectation that 30 million Bafana Bafana fans will place upon him at the World Cup finals? Barney Cullum talks to him.


When Bafana Bafana leave their Kempton Park base for Johannesburg's Soccer City arena on p June - to face Mexico in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup finals - Steven Pienaar's mind will flash back a dozen years.


Travelling south-west on the A24 highway, he'll remember the journey he used to make home from the country's plush School of Football Excellence, as a youngster, back to the stark reality of his family's tough life in the downtrodden suburb of Westbury.


But rather than head back to his mother's house, the team coach will veer five miles south of Westbury, to the imposing 94,700 capacity arena that will stage the World Cup's opening and closing matches.


Undoubtedly South Africa's best player, the national team's 30 million fans hope Pienaar's skills will unlock the defence of their three Group A opponents with precise balls for strikers Benni McCarthy, Bernard Parker or Katlego Mphela to do the damage.


Without question, the Everton player can weight a pass like few others. But can he shoulder the hopes of a nation desperate to do well, despite its poor international record?


Stepping out for Everton against Chelsea in last season's English FA Cup final, he came alight, providing Louis Saha with a telling pass for the opening goal.


The 25th-second strike became the fastest goal in the event's history, indicating Pienaar has neither the time nor the inclination for stage fright.


"I was not thinking about how many people were watching the match," Pienaar calmly tells African Football.


"I just wanted Everton to be the team that stood up in the stands at the end, lifting the trophy. I had worked hard throughout the season and I had gone there with the mentality to win." The former Ajax Cape Town, Ajax Amsterdam and Borussia Dortmund playmaker speaks quietly, seriously and almost flatly.


Controlled, but ambitious and determined, Pienaar is known for his skill but, like a backstreet pool player, his ability to execute under pressure is what sets him apart from his peers.


Recent goals in high-profile English Premiership games against Manchester City and Arsenal - the latter of which he considers the best of his career - are further testimony to his temperament.


"When I was a young boy I used to play on the streets, often for money," Pienaar recalls.


"When you play for money there is something on it and so you don't want to lose. I think that's why I have a strong winning mentality.


"I never belonged to a team until I was 12 years old, when I joined an amateur club called Westbury Arsenal.


"I had never liked listening to coaches, or even being spoken to as part of a team. Training wasn't my cup of tea, so 1 just played my own game, out on the streets."


But on seeing his brother Jerome make a career for himself as a player at Kaizer Chiefs, one of South Africa's top clubs, Steven got the needed wake-up call that kick-started his career.


Accepting an invitation to join the School of Football Excellence, he got an early look at the very same facilities in Kempton Park that Bafana will utilise between matches this summer, when they use it as their base camp.


"I was very fortunate to go to the School of Excellence, to be able to polish the technique and the talent that God gave me and to learn how to use it in the way that God had wanted me to," Pienaar realises now.


The School of Excellence was a world away from the gun crime and racism prevalent in and around Westbury.


Pienaar remembers being beaten up when he ventured to the neighbouring white suburb of Triomf, as well as losing a close friend to a bullet. Understandably, it is not a subject he chooses to dwell upon.


"I was fortunate to work with the Dutch coach Leo van Veen, who helped me at Ajax Cape Town," Pienaar says.


"He appreciated the way I played but at the same time he changed my mentality. He taughr me how to prepare for games, not just playing to please the crowd bur also how to play for the team."


Pienaar enjoyed an authentic Dutch footballing apprenticeship when he became one of only a handful to graduate from the feeder team in South Africa and travel to the Netherlands to join its parent club.


Whilst Ajax's home-grown players had been playing structured football from a far younger age than Pienaar, he managed to establish himself as a key player in the team that won Eredivisie league titles in zooi and 2004.


"Richard Witschge was a player that I always looked up to and Aron Winter always helped me out on the pitch," he recounts. The former Dutch internationals, twelve and fourteen years older than Pienaar, helped mould the young South African into a tactically savvy midfielder.


By the time he moved on to Germany in 2006, Pienaar began to see younger players, such as Dutch international Wesley Sneijder, seeking his counsel.



Signed to replace the extremely popular Czech Tomas Rosicky, Pienaar was never accepted at Dortmund, with some of his most devoted fans questioning his staying power in the European professional ranks.


Hindsight clearly indicates Dortmund was simply the wrong club at the wrong time, for Pienaar has been a model of consistency and maturity since arriving in England in 2007.


Indeed, there is now a groundswell of opinion lobbying for the Everton star to be made South Africa captain ahead of the World Cup.


"It's great that people can finally see that I do give everything when I play for the national team and I appreciate their support.


"I always give too per cent, even when the games are not going my way. It would be an honour for me to captain the team [one day]. Captaincy is about leadership and I see myself as a leader.


"Off the field I'm not so talkative but on the field I like to talk a lot. It's important to talk on the field to keep the boys calm and to keep them sharp as well."


While no fan of the South African team doubts the exquisite quality of Pienaar's midfield play, even Bafana Bafana s diehard supporters are apprehensive that they could be humiliated on home soil in June, when they take on Mexico and former world champions France and Uruguay in Group A.


But Pienaar refuses to wear the national toga of apprehension.


"If it comes down to technical ability alone, we can match those teams without a doubt," he says confidently.


"However, it'll also come down to the tactics and whether we are mentally prepared to play and give everything throughout the tournament. That's what I think we need to work on: our mentality.


"We need to go into games not undermining ourselves. With all rhe players we have, including those that have been together a while and those young players that have come in, I hope we are mentally prepared when the tournament starts."


Deriving confidence from Bafana Bafana's semi-final showing at the Confederations Cup, Pienaar insists last summer's tournament marked the end of their decline and heralded the team's rebirth.


"We play with more confidence now. Before, when some of the players made a mistake, they didn't want the ball any more but now everyone wants to get the ball and just enjoy the games.


"The tournament gave some members of the squad some experience of what to expect at a World Cup."


Brazilian Joel Santana, who led them at that tournament, has been replaced by his compatriot, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who was initially Santana's boss during his previous stint as South Africa coach.


Having led four sides at previous World Cups - and winning one with Brazil in 1994 - the 67-year-old insists the foundations for a competitive team have been built and that they will be ready by June.


"Parreira is a good guy," claims Pienaar. "He listens to the players and thinks like them also. He's not the sort of manager who just wants to boss everyone around. He's quite friendly and is always happy to talk to us.


"He wants us to play our normal game but he's Brazilian, so of course, there will not be any long-ball football."



That style would certainly not be in keeping wirh South Africa's history of playing anything other than aesthetically pleasing "shoeshine and piano" football, as the local fans describe it - as long as it delivers the needed results.


Although the national team's form continues to fluctuate, they began the year on a good note, with a confidence-boosting 3-0 win over their neighbours Zimbabwe in Durban.


Their Southern African neighbours may not be in the class of the opposition that they will be competing against at the World Cup finals but Pienaar is confident that Bafana Bafana will be cannon fodder for no one.


"We can reach the quarter-finals," he says, knowing rhat in South Africa's two World Cup appearances in 1998 and 2002, they failed to progress beyond the group stages. Every one of his compatriots hopes his words become true, as he and his colleagues fight for the pride of the rainbow nation in June.


Thirty million people expect nothing less.


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