Steven Pienaar is one of the host nation's brightest chances of success at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The tenacious attacking midfielder, who is currently illuminating the Premier League in an Everton shirt, hopes the competition can bring positives for his country off the pitch as well as on it.
Starting his career on the streets of Johannesburg, Pienaar credits his mother with him making the move to Ajax Cape Town, where he joined the Dutch club’s extended youth development system. After six goals in 24 games in South Africa, he moved to the Netherlands and became an instrumental part in Ajax’s Eredivisie-winning sides in 2002 and 2004. He made almost 100 appearances for the Amsterdam giants and played at Korea/Japan 2002 during his time in the Low Countries.
Pienaar moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2006, but failed to settle in Germany. Consequently, his form suffered. When Everton signed him on loan a year later, it was a move that revitalised his career. Pienaar made the switch to Goodison Park permanent a year later and rediscover his peak form not only at club level, but also for his country, which resulted in him becoming the linchpin of Bafana Bafana’s FIFA Confederations Cup squad.
A skilful and determined playmaker who is comfortable on either side of the pitch, the 27-year-old has attracted praise from many quarters in recent times. With this year's FIFA World Cup looming, Pienaar spoke to FIFA.com about watching previous editions of the tournament, the atmosphere supporters can expect in South Africa, and his Bafana Bafana's aspirations.
FIFA.com: Steven, what are your early memories of watching FIFA World Cup football as a youngster in South Africa?
Steven Pienaar: There are a lot of big players that played in the World Cup, it was always exciting and the whole world is watching you. As a young boy I was also watching it. Now it’s time for me to show the world what South Africa’s made of, and now a lot of people can see us. I watched a lot of the World Cup in USA when Netherlands played against Brazil - I think that was the best game in the World Cup for me.
It’s a big leap from watching the FIFA World Cup to taking part as one of the stars of your national team. How did that transition start?
I started off just like any other kid in South Africa, playing in the streets, and eventually someone saw me playing and asked me what I thought about joining a soccer school. At first I said 'no' because I just wanted to stay where I was, but the guy went and spoke to my mother. I didn’t know, and when the time came to go to high school my mum came to me and said: 'You’re not going to that school, you’re going to a different school'. That's how it started! I went to a soccer school and that’s where I became more disciplined, it’s different than playing on the streets, and when I got selected for the national U-17 team, I realised I could make it into professional football.
The supporters are really special with the vuvuzelas and they’re always dressed up for the games. It's going to be a different experience for the outside world.
What aspect of diki [a South African dance] have you taken into your game today?
A lot of tsamayas, which helps you create space. I’ve been doing that since I started playing, I still do it now and the players still fall for the same trick!
Your life has changed drastically because of football. What do you hope the FIFA World Cup will bring to South Africa?
I think what the World Cup will bring to South Africa is a lot of changes to the infrastructure of the country, a lot of job opportunities for people. I hope it will make it a better place, a safer place also for tourists, because it’s a beautiful country and there’s lots to do for people from outside South Africa.
Some sections of the media are talking about security being an issue. Do you think this will be the case?
Everywhere there are problems about security, even in big countries like America, so I mean its just things that you live with, it’s a safe place. One thing I know about football in South Africa is it brings the people together they forget about all the problems. It makes everyone happy and I think that’s what the people are waiting for. It’s a big, big moment and no-one will want to let the country down by doing something stupid.
Tell us what people can expect from the fans in South Africa…
The supporters are really special, they’re passionate about the game and hate losing like any other fan. But for South Africans, when it comes to football it means so much to them, it’s like the bread they eat every day. They’re really special with the vuvuzelas and they’re always dressed up for the games. I think they’re one of the noisiest crowds people will experience in the World Cup. The vuvuzela goes for 90 minutes and even before the games, so it’s really noisy. It's like an elephant, so it’s going to be a different experience for the outside world.
What are the main differences between playing in Europe and South Africa in terms of the fans?
It’s how they view the game, I think. In Europe, the fans are more observant: they’re really into the game and the play, so when you do something good, like a nice pass, they reward you with applause. The hardcore fans start the singing off and that spreads if the team are doing well. But in South Africa they sing before the game until after the game, no matter what happens.
The mental strength of the players must be top notch - that’s a key for us to go through to the next stage. The pressure must not get to us and we have to just work as a team, give everything we have.
On a personal level, which venue are you most looking forward to playing at?
Well, Bloemfontein will be great, because the fans are great. They’re probably the best supporters in South Africa. The vuvuzelas will be noisy and hopefully confuse the French team! However, out of all of the stadiums used for this World Cup, I’d have to say Soccer City. The location has a lot of history both in terms of South African football and for myself. I remember scoring twice for my Ajax Cape Town against Orlando Pirates, and that was an incredible feeling. For me, being from Johannesburg, growing up ten minutes from where the stadium is, means an awful lot to me. It’s also where the opening match against Mexico will be played.
The first game of the tournament is always a big event. How are you preparing for that and how important is it to win?
We will go into the game with experience of the FIFA Confederations Cup. I think the players want to win, we know it’s not going to be easy but that’s our goal, which then makes it easier for the next two games. I’ll say the mental strength of the players must be top notch - that’s a key for us to go through to the next stage. The pressure must not get to us and we have to just work as a team, give everything we have. My own preparation is quiet, it’s not so difficult. I listen to gospel music in the dressing room, and even on our way to the game. Some of my team-mates will sing on the bus until we reach the dressing room, and they will carry on in the dressing room. I’ll just listen to my Gospel music and say a small prayer before putting my boots on.
There’s always pressure in every football game that you play, but when you’re playing for South Africa, do you feel it a little bit more?
Oh yes, but that’s not just because I’m the No10 or I play in the Premier League for a big club in Everton - I felt that pressure in my very first game. When you play for South Africa, you’re representing almost 50 million people, and they expect you to do well. You’re also representing your family, which means a lot to me. That’s some pressure, but it’s also an honour.