Wayne Rooney and Steven Pienaar have more in common than just Everton Football Club. Both are also carrying the hopes of their respective nations on their shoulders this week as the World Cup finally kicks off.
But while Rooney, who started out at Goodison Park, is well-versed in his status as England's talisman, the role is relatively new to South Africa's Pienaar. Always seen as one of the most naturally talented players from the country, most Bafana Bafana fans will tell you it was not until last year's Confederations Cup that the diminutive midfielder came of age.
Having made his debut in 2002, he struggled at international level and did not play a single minute of that year's World Cup. After South Africa were eliminated, Pienaar was castigated in the press when he was overheard joking with a colleague that "at least we can go home now".
Saturday's friendly against Denmark saw Pienaar finally win his 50th cap, although remarkably he has scored just two goals – against Burkina Faso in 2004 and Uganda a year later. Now, after some scintillating performances as South Africa made it to the semi-finals at the Confederations Cup last year and his excellent displays for Everton, the weight of expectation will be upon him as the World Cup hosts face Mexico at Soccer City tomorrow. "It took time, but eventually I got more confidence to express myself at the Confederations Cup. I felt enough was enough of people criticising me that I don't play with my heart for the national team and only for my club," reflected Pienaar this week.
"Now we have the World Cup and it's a big ask but I know I have my team-mates to support me. We have to be together and hopefully we can satisfy the people by doing that. When the team is playing good and we are winning, there won't be any talk about just Steven Pienaar, it will be the whole team."
Known as "Schillo" in these parts, the 28-year-old's performances for Everton over the past two seasons have seen his profile – and his trademark cornrow haircut – explode on the global stage. Doubts over his commitment to stay on Merseyside have followed his failure to sign a new contract but Pienaar was quick to praise the effect manager David Moyes has had on his career. "I've often wondered when he gets chance to go to sleep because he is the hardest working manager I've ever come across," he said. "The gaffer has always been there to help me. He's the one who took me to England and had a lot of confidence in me. When someone shows you that kind of respect you really want to pay them back someday."
A testament to that is Pienaar's stated ambition is to score more goals for both club and country. A sumptuous chip over Arsenal's Manuel Almunia back in January showed his hard work has paid off for Everton and now the aim is to replicate that form for South Africa.
He said: "I think it's because I'm more of a team player but my coaches have always wanted me to score more goals. I've been trying to be more selfish and shooting instead of passing sometimes and my composure has definitely improved. But I would be happy if I didn't score any and the team won."
A victory tomorrow would surely ignite Bafana's campaign amid the wild enthusiasm that is sweeping the country. Parallels have already inevitably been drawn with the victorious 1996 African Nations Cup team. Now the onus will be on the boy from the tough Johannesburg suburb of Westbury to consign their legend to the past.
"We all have a lot of respect for the class of '96. I know it's going to be hard for us to emulate that," he said. "This is our chance to make history, although the second round would not be enough for me. I think we have to get further than that. We have a vision that we can do it. Now we have to show it on the field."Reuse content