The wizard of Westbury
Recently-retired Steven Pienaar is undoubtedly one of the most talented footballers ever to come out of SA, but the professionalism he displayed over 18 years of top-flight football is every bit as laudable as his silky skills
The first sight I had of Pienaar was in a SABC sport insert of a South African U17 game against a now forgotten African opponent. He simply ran riot, outshining everyone else on the pitch with a sublime touch, technical skill, a composure that belied his tender years and footballing intelligence par excellence. It’s not a given that a youth prospect will be able to make the tough transition to the more physical adult game, but there was every indication that the man from roughand-tumble Westbury in Johannesburg would go on to greater things.
Deemed far too good for domestic football after just 24 games and 12 goals for the Urban Warriors, the teenage Pienaar followed the well-trammeled path to mother club Ajax Amsterdam, where he was an instant hit.
He won the Young Talent of the Year gong soon after arriving, beating out esteemed peers such as Dutch icons Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder, as well as fellow African star Mido and making his mark at this club renowned for its Johan Cruyff-inspired Total Football philosophy. He helped it to two Eredivisie titles and became one of a select few South Africans to campaign in the Uefa Champions League.
Pienaar would go on to showcase his skills at Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund and Premier League outfits Tottenham Hotspurs and Sunderland, as well as enjoying two profitable stints at Everton. He shied away from the spotlight, eschewing the lavish lifestyle and controversy associated with others of his profile (apart from a couple of drunken driving incidents), focusing instead on his childlike love of the Beautiful Game in a manner reminiscent of the incomparable Lionel Messi.
“Steven’s a very grounded and humble human being. He might be earning a lot of money, but that hasn’t changed him one bit. He’s a very down-to-earth boy who’s solely focused on being a great footballer,” says his mother Denise.
While his star was on the rise in Europe, Pienaar was also a committed member of Bafana Bafana, earning 66 caps,
representing the country at the 2002 and 2010 Fifa World Cups and taking on the captain’s armband. He lists his debut for the national team as one of the most cherished moments of his career.
“Signing my first professional contract with
Ajax Cape Town was for me a special moment,” says Pienaar.
“Two days before that, we’d played Scotland and I was grumpy the whole time and walked around moodily. Bra J [Jomo Sono] was, like, ‘Why are you grumpy? You’re only a young boy.’ I said to him: ‘I want to play.’ He put me in [ for the Turkey game] and said: ‘Play where you want.’ That was also a stand-out moment of my career.”
If there’s one regret Pienaar has, it’s that he wasn’t
“STEVEN’S A VERY GROUNDED AND HUMBLE HUMAN BEING. HE MIGHT BE EARNING A LOT OF MONEY, BUT THAT HASN’T CHANGED HIM ONE BIT. HE’S A VERY DOWN-TO-EARTH BOY WHO’S SOLELY FOCUSED ON BEING A GREAT FOOTBALLER.”
able to ply his trade in front of his fellow South Africans in the Premier Soccer League. He was all set for an emotional swan-song with Bidvest Wits after leaving relegated Sunderland, but the muchanticipated dream return didn’t materialise. He made just four appearances for the Clever Boys before calling it quits, citing logistical difficulties to which he was unaccustomed. And while the 36-year-old Pienaar was still physically capable and there was interest in his services locally, the will to go on simply wasn’t there.
“Looking back, when I got relegated, I should have just said: ‘Thank you – this is it.’ But I think every player always has a little child in him who still wants to run around, laughing in the dressing room, etc. I
do wish now that I’d stopped earlier, but that little boy was still there and I wanted to give it another go.”
It’s fitting and a tribute to the affection in which he’s held at Goodison Park that he was appointed Everton’s first-ever International Ambassador, tasked with supporting commercial activities for the club and its partners, as well as helping to continue building the burgeoning profile of the 140-year-old outfit across the globe.
A cult figure on the Merseyside, Pienaar’s enjoyed two separate stints at Everton, the first of which coincided with one of the brightest periods of his impressive career. Under the astute tutelage of David Moyes, with whom he continues to enjoy a close relationship, the slightly built winger adapted quickly to the physical demands of the Premier League. He formed a celebrated and lethal left flank combination with the extravagantly sideburned full-back Leighton Baines and won the club’s Player of the Season honours in 2009/10 as the unfancied Liverpudlians shot to Champions League qualification.
“I’ve signed Steven Pienaar three times. He was fantastic for me over the years and a great footballer. I loved working with him,” said Moyes, paying tribute to his former charge after his retirement.
BOTTOM OF FORM
His appointment comes at an exciting point in the club’s 140-year history, as it seeks to become a title contender and a global commercial force with the aid of substantial investment from billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri.
Pienaar, who amassed more than 200 appearances for the Toffees, has always been vocal about his love for the club. “I’ve felt enormous affection for Everton Football Club since the day I first signed and I’m both honoured and delighted to become an official International Ambassador.
“The club’s very special to me and I look forward to further developing our unique bond in my new role and helping to spread the word of its fantastic work. This is a very proud day for me and I’m delighted to be returning to a club that made me feel so welcome as a player.”
Lacking the natural charisma and outspokenness of McCarthy, which make for entertaining studio punditry, and having shown little inclination towards building a coaching career, it seems Pienaar’s made a shrewd decision in donning a suit for Everton’s corporate initiatives.
Former Goodison hero Wayne Rooney was derided for showing off a “Once a blue, always a blue” vest in celebrating a goal for the club and shortly thereafter shipping off to Manchester United. Although it’s a shame that he’ll only turn out in togs for the occasional Everton and Bafana legends exhibition game, Pienaar remains the true-blue player fans and coaches all over the world relish.
01 Steven Pienaar of Wits during the MTN 8, SemiFinal Second Leg match between Bidvest Wits and Cape Town City FC at Bidvest Stadium, September 201702 In action during the Premier League match between Southampton and Sunderland at St Mary's Stadium in August 201603 Pienaar poses with signed portraits of himself which were painted during the 2010 Fifa World Cup