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

Destiny Man - - THE BIG READ -

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

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