Steven Pienaar: Given perspective by township upbringing
When your childhood is spent in a lawless 'death zone' where friends have been killed, the fight to get a game for Spurs isn't that daunting, the South African tells Rory Smith
Wednesday 16 November 2011
Steven Pienaar has endured enough in life, in football, to treat triumph and disaster just the same. The moment his career nearly finished before it had started at Ajax, his ostracism at Borussia Dortmund, his anguish at leaving Everton, his travails at Tottenham: all are met with a sanguine equanimity, the sort of perspective gleaned from a childhood spent in a Johannesburg township once described as a "death zone to keep the devil busy". Only one thing visibly embarrasses him, induces him to wince at the memory.
"I had only been with Everton for two days," he recalls. "We were in Los Angeles on a pre-season tour, and I was told you have to stand on a chair and sing, even if you don't want to. In front of the whole team, the whole room. I did a traditional South African song. It was really bad. Really bad." That experience was sufficiently scarring to stay with the 29-year-old. "When I first came here, [Peter] Crouch wanted me to do the same," he says. "I had learnt my lesson by that stage. I just told him I wouldn't do it."
Eleven months after his acrimonious departure from Goodison Park for White Hart Lane, that contrast could be seen as indicative of his relative experiences at the two clubs.
When the South African international finally exited Merseyside, after more than a year of persistently refusing Everton's offers of a new contract, his former manager David Moyes suggested Pienaar would not, exactly, find himself in a land of milk and honey. "Sometimes you find that a player suits a club and vice versa," the Scot said. "It all just fits, and when they move on they cannot recapture that." His words have proved prophetic.
Where the Everton Pienaar spent three and a half years proving himself an impish menace, fleet of foot and rich in imagination, the incarnation which has manifested itself at Spurs has proved ineffective, anaemic. When he has played, that is: a succession of injuries has restricted him to just 12 appearances for Harry Redknapp's side since his move last January.
Pienaar bristles, though, at the very suggestion he might have erred, either in leaving a city in which he admits he felt enormously comfortable – his house, set back a little from Woolton Road, was persistently bustling with friends and relatives – or in choosing Spurs. On this issue, he is quite clear. "Regrets? No, not at all. Not at all," he says, eyes wide with surprise. "It has been a year of mixed feelings and, yes, it has been a bumpy road, but hopefully I can make it a success.
"It was a very hard decision to make. It was hard to leave Everton as a club, and Liverpool as a city. The people I had around me, the players, most of the supporters were very good to me, and I will always be grateful to them. It was so hard to go, but in life you have to make decisions. I made this one as a footballer and as a human being, and I don't have any regrets about what I chose to do. Not at all."
It is an attitude that bears testament to where Pienaar has come from. Not simply as a person, growing up fatherless in Westbury, on the dusty outskirts of Johannesburg, a place so lawless, so dangerous that he was not allowed to watch television on the sofa for fear of being struck by a stray bullet from the gangland turf wars raging outside. Instead, he sat on the floor. Instead of obeying poverty's grinding, inexorable gravity, he found himself swaddled from it.
Such surroundings have a habit of intruding, of course. Pienaar recalls being bruised by pellets from the "daisy guns" fired at him as a child, as his homeland seethed in apartheid's death throes, and Westbury's brutal, endemic violence has claimed the life of at least one friend.
By that stage, Pienaar had escaped, travelling 800 miles to Cape Town to play for Ajax's feeder team there. He had been spotted playing for a team known as Westbury Arsenal – no doubt something he has not highlighted to his new fans – and was fast-tracked into the Ajax system. Moves to the Netherlands, Germany and finally the Premier League followed. His life now, it is fair to say, is as far removed materially from his beginnings as it is geographically.
That does not mean, though, that it has been easy. In Amsterdam, he was sidelined for more than four months with nerve damage; at Dortmund, where he was signed as a replacement for the Arsenal-bound Tomas Rosicky, he found himself at a club drowning in a toxic mix of debt and high expectation. He did not settle; his team-mates did not help.
"I had a tough time at Ajax," he says. "When I damaged my nerve, they said I'd never play again. I came back strong. I had a difficult spell at Dortmund, and I came back strong. Things like that help you appreciate the things that you do have. Being a footballer is only a short career. Having been through all of that helps me appreciate the time I am on the field. It drives you to fight for your place. I want to be part of this team, and I want to show I did not come here by mistake. I have come back twice already, and I will come back again."
It is a statement made with total conviction. He does not feel he has to prove himself – "the Spurs fans have seen me play against them for Everton, so I do not have to show them what I can do" – and he has been granted time and space by his manager, Harry Redknapp, to return to fitness. "He has been very supportive," says Pienaar.
There is no bitterness, no recrimination, and no fear that things will not work out. Even his country's failure, just 18 months after hosting the World Cup, to qualify for the African Nations Cup, is seen as an opportunity gained, not a chance lost.
"It is really disappointing we are not going after hosting last summer," he says, glancing around an event at which the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Yaya Touré and Samuel Eto'o – all players who will be competing – are present. "We have been playing really well as a team since then and this was a chance to show everyone that we were not only at the World Cup because it was held in South Africa.
"But sometimes, like they say, things happen for a reason. Hopefully, that will be the case with not going to the Nations Cup. Maybe it will mean I get a chance at Spurs."
It is typical of Pienaar. Triumph and disaster: just the same. He may not have burst into song on arrival at White Hart Lane, but that should not be seen as evidence of a lack of joy or a dearth of enthusiasm. His beat goes on.
Steven Pienaar was speaking at Puma's launch of 10 African kits, designed by artists from different countries. Steven Pienaar wears the Puma v1.11 speed boot
Steven Pienaar: Life and times
Born in Johannesburg on 17 March 1982 and started his professional career at Ajax Cape Town. Moved to Borussia Dortmund in January 2006 before joining Everton on loan – the club made the deal permanent for £2m. Signed for Spurs for £3m in January 2011.
Former girlfriend Danielle Steeneveld attempted to sue him for £1m in 2009 for not marrying her. The case was dismissed.
Pleaded guilty to drink-driving in Liverpool in early 2010.
Has 57 caps for South Africa and played in both the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. Said he intends to move to Orlando Pirates before he retires.
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