Although just 26, Aaron Mokoena looks every inch the wizened warrior. A deep scar on his cheek attests to a wilder youth and his nickname Mbazo or 'Axe' speaks to his propensity for cutting down opponents in hard, but fair challenges.
Not yet 18 when he was first called up to play for South Africa, Mokoena recently won his 61st cap and is now third on the all-time list of players who have captained the country's national team. He has worn the skipper's armband 18 times for Bafana Bafana.
However, all of the past achievement pale in comparison with what Mokoena wants to attain in the future, notably keeping his place in the side and leading out the South African side when they host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals .
It is just over three years before those finals kick off but Mokoena says he is firmly focused on the event and on helping the hosts produce a credible performance. There is, he says, a new level of enthusiasm in the team, notably since the arrival of new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira , whose acumen and experience promises to take the national side to a new level.
South Africa's 3-0 win away over Chad in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at the end of March was a good omen, says Mokoena, who feels team spirit is back on a high. "We've always been close as a team, even when we were not winning, but the victory over Chad has really boosted our confidence."
'Still the beginning'Mokoena missed the last Cup of Nations finals in Egypt after being deposed as captain, walking out on the team after what he felt were underhanded attempts to strip him of his leadership.
However, once Ted Dumitru had been removed as coach, Mokoena immediately made himself available for the side again.
"I must warn that it is still the beginning, we have a long way to go, but we are being given an opportunity and an environment now to focus on doing what's best for the country," says the English-based destroyer.
Mokoena's career is also taking off at club level after years of relative anonymity in the Netherlands and Belgium. Now at Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, he plays a central midfield role in England, but for the national side is still employed as a stopper in the heart of defence.
Blackburn may be where he earns his bread and butter but Mokena insists that South Africa is uppermost in his mind: "Playing for your country should be a priority. It is important that the players change their attitude because this is going to be vital for our preparations."
"I'm confident about the future and about Bafana Bafana needing to take up their rightful place in world and African football."