Pulling himself out of the poverty of his childhood in Johannesburg’s Westbury township, Steven Pienaar has become one of the true heroes of South African football. The technically-gifted midfielder sat down for an interview with FIFA.com from Finch Farm, the training headquarters of Premier League side Everton.
Over the course of our conversation, the topics touched on Pienaar’s roots, his rise to fame, the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and his joy over “doing all he can” as a FIFA Football For Hope ambassador.
FIFA.com: How important was football in your childhood?
Steven Pienaar: Coming from a poor neighbourhood football of course played an important role. It gave me focus and something to cherish and love, allowing me to take my mind off the problems at home – it just kept me busy as a young kid, as well as helping me make a lot of new friends.
What was it like growing up in the township of Westbury?
As a young kid it was difficult because there were so many things going on around you and you were stuck in the middle of it. Like I said, football just kept me going and kept us away from all the difficulties and challenges we all faced as young kids.
Can you tell us the influence and meaning that football has had in your life?
To be honest I don’t know, but looking back most of my friends ended up on the wrong path because of poverty. They had to do something to earn a living, so some of them became drug dealers or just criminals.
How can football help young people in achieving their personal goals?
If you play it every day it can give you self-belief and hope, which is important. If you play it every day you will get perfection out of it. If you play every day, spending six or seven hours a day with a ball, you will get better and eventually get to a point when you believe you can achieve your goals.
The FIFA President describes football as ‘a school of life’ - would you agree with that?
I agree, definitely. You can’t always win, but then again you can’t win a game if you don’t play it, so it reflects life. A lot of people just live for the game and I’m one of those people.
What does it mean for you to be a FIFA Football for Hope Ambassador?
It’s a real honour to work as an ambassador for FIFA. Of course FIFA could have asked any other person, but they chose me and I’m really honoured and will do all I can to help.
In your eyes, what’s been the most important legacy of the World Cup in South Africa?
People in South Africa love football that’s why I think it was such a great tournament. Of course it also shows the rest of the world that football is alive and you can go to different continents and people will make the most of the chance as football brings people together. That’s what Sepp Blatter did and it brought South Africa back together again.
The preparations for the World Cup and this honour have coincided with your time at Everton. Why is this a special club?
It’s a club with history, we all know that, and it’s the people’s club – and it’s a side on the rise again.
How close do you think the team are to challenging the top four over the next few years?
I think the quality is here at the club. The only problem, like everyone seems to know, is the money issue – we need more players. Hopefully that will change in the next few years and the team can go on to challenge.
David Moyes has won the manager of the year award twice since he's been at Everton. What makes him such a good manager?
I think he’s a workaholic, he works around the clock, and I think he deserves the two awards he got. I think there is a lot more he will achieve and I think he will become one of the best managers in the world – I’ve never seen a coach work as hard as him.
You're now a vice-captain of South Africa, do you now feel you have more responsibility on your shoulders?
Of course. I’m honoured to be vice-captain of the national team, but now I have to approach things a bit differently. Before I preferred to be in the background a bit more, but now I have the responsibility of helping lead the group, but you get used to it, and in life you learn new things every day and taking on this new level of responsibility was one for me.
You've been around Pitso Mosimane, the new South Africa coach, for some time now, what are your thoughts on him?
He is exactly like Moyes, he’s a workaholic. He doesn’t sleep, the only thing he does is watch football and he’s a great coach who works hard and demands the highest level of discipline from everyone. I’m lucky as I’ve known him since I was 13 years old, so I know all about him and what kind of person he is. He also wants to be involved with the players’ lives off the pitch. He wants the players to always be happy, which is important – he’s like a father figure – and I think he deserves to be the national team coach.
You sound incredibly content with your career at the moment – is this the happiest you’ve been as a player?
Yes, I’ve not enjoyed my football more than this before and I’ve got two healthy daughters and a healthy family which is important. That’s what makes me happy.
Do you have a message you want to give to the young people of South Africa and the world?
The challenges in life can make your dreams seem far from you, it can make you believe you’ll never reach your goals. But if you have belief and faith you can reach your goals, and if you keep pushing and going, God will open the doors for you that are shut.