When South Africa kick off the World Cup on 11th June in Soccer City, they are expected to have little or no chance of making a footballing impact on the tournament. Ranked 81stin the world, behind nations such Wales, Panama and Uzbekistan, the Bafana Bafana are classed with the USA and Japan as one of the poorest sides whose terra firma has been elected to host the tournament. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side also have to live with the knowledge that Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana are expected to be the flag bearers for the African continent. One man who has the potential to change these expectations is Steven Pienaar.
The Everton midfielder is currently in the form of his career, emerging this season as a key man for the blues. When he came to England on loan from Borrusia Dortmund in 2007, he was considered a risky buy by the pundits, having never really hit it off in Germany following an impressive few years in the Eredivisie with Ajax. He was a typical David Moyes signing, a loan deal, earning the player an opportunity to prove himself. Initial signs were mixed. While no doubt talented, he looked light, drifting in and out of games showing only patches of what he could do. Where best to play him was also an issue, too small for centre midfield, not an out and out winger or striker, Pienaar didn’t initially settle into an obvious role with the Everton first team. However, one thing was obvious, the South African was willing to work, a trait which won over both the fans and Moyes, earning him a permanent move to Goodison.
As Pienaar matured and developed physically, he has become an integral part of the Everton starting XI. Settling into a left wing berth, Pienaar forged an almost telepathic like relationship with left back Leighton Baines and as Everton have moved from their more direct playing style of the early Moyes years to a more eye pleasing outfit, Pienaar has been allowed to express himself more. Surrounded by the creative minds of Arteta, Osman, Fellaini and Bilyaletinov, the last 18 months have seen the South African play the best football of his career, even on occasion leading the charge from central midfield for the blues. I have watched him in the flesh on a number of occasions since late 2008, and he has been exceptional every time. His work rate is phenomenal, but yet for all his running, his technique never fails to let him down. His decision making has improved immensely always seeming to make the pass when the time is right and he has added a few more goals to his game, making him one of the top performing midfielders in the Premier League.
It is this form that has seen Pienaar become the creative hub for the Bafana Bafana. In an era where South Africa lack a team of top class stars, a lot of weight rests on Pienaar’s shoulders. Heralding from the humble surroundings of the Westbury township, Pienaar is proud to represent his country, but will need to be at his best come June. On paper the South African’s have a tough group, facing World Cup regulars Mexico in their openings game, followed by a clash with an under rated Uruaguay led by Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez before ending the groups stages against the controversial French National Team. However in reality, Mexico struggled despite the lack of strong opposition in the qualifiers and the Raymond Domenech led French are a shadow of the team of four years ago, and overly dependent on Franck Ribery. Like the French in 1998, South Korea in 2002 and the Germans in 2006, the South African side will hope to fully utilise home support to pull them throught the group stages. If the Bafana Bafana are still in with a chance of qualifying come the France game, it could make for an interesting clash, one that Steven Pienaar would surely relish.