Midfielder is confident home support can see the hosts through
The slight frame of Steven Pienaar will carry an enormous burden of expectation for South Africa this summer as arguably the World Cup hosts’ only established international star.
A stellar season in England with Premier League side Everton has made the 28-year-old from Johannesburg one of the few recognisable names in an underperforming national team. He is also one of the few with the requisite international experience – a factor coach Carlos Alberto Parreira believes will be key to his side’s chances of emerging out of the group phase and avoiding the ignominy of being the first host nation to fail to make it past the first round.
Pienaar was in South Africa’s squad at their last World Cup, in 2002, but was deemed too young and too physically weak to get a game. However, his physical appearance is deceptive and his hard-running has now won him more than his share of admirers.
Not filly fit at last year’s Confederations Cup, he still proved a talisman for Bafana Bafana and his absence from more recent internationals, mostly because of injury, has shown how reliant the team is on his skill and work rate.
Of the four South Africa internationals in the Premier League, Pienaar is the only one guaranteed a regular starting place and his exploits are keenly followed in his home country, where there is saturation coverage of English football.
He is also one of the few who took a positive view of a draw that pitted South Africa against two former world champions (France and Uruguay) and also has them starting against a tricky Mexico side on June 11.
“I was at Goodison Park doing a signing session for Everton fans when the draw was on and we stole away to a room on the side to watch,” he says. “When Mexico came out I thought, ‘That’s good, we will beat them’, and with Uruguay I was pretty pleased too.
“France are tough, but Ireland showed that they can be fragile and I believe we are equally as good as the Irish. It is that first game that is so important. If we can get three points against Mexico I am convinced we will qualify for the second round. We have beaten them before, so why should we not do it again?”
Pienaar says there is value in being an underdog but that any unexpected progress will have to come in tandem with a fanatical and fevered home support.
“I think it is good for us that they [the experts] write us off,” he adds. “From a player’s point of view, this will make us even more determined to prove the critics wrong and probably, in a way, make us more relaxed.
“Results have been bad of late, there is no denying that, but I have said all along that this team has the ability to surprise people, and when we read the negative headlines it just makes us more determined to do well.
“If the crowd can get behind us, which I believe they will just because of the enthusiasm they will show for the tournament, then that can be a real boost for us. It definitely adds something.
“I don’t know the science behind it, but you look at any team in any sport and they generally win more games at home than away.”