Sunday, 17 January 2010

With Pienaar and the vuvuzelas on their side, perhaps South Africa have a chance

AT last Steven Pienaar is offering a glimmer of on-field optimism for Bafana Bafana. Yes, South Africa may be gearing up nicely for the World Cup in June – I’ve been to the Moses Mabhida in Durban, Green Point in Cape Town, Soccer City in Soweto –off the field, great job.

But it’s on the field where pessimism strikes at the heart among the Rainbow Nation’s population, whether they follow local football or not. Invariably not.

But my question for those doubters is this: “How can any side fail to compete at the top level with Steven Pienaar at the heart of things?”

The bloke is a revelation. Anybody who watched Everton’s emphatic 2-0 win over Manchester City’s millionaires will understand the point.

Sure Pienaar scored his third goal in three games – a neat near-post free-kick nearly as good as his exquisite finish in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last week – but goals aren’t the only currency for the former Ajax Amsteram midfielder.

He is one of those rare midfielders who can perform the “Makalele” role – defensive, along the lines of Alex Song at Arsenal or Michael Essien at Chelsea. He is also adept at the creative passing and quick break element – think Stevie Gerrard at Liverpool, though not lately. And of course, he has the engine of a Frank Lampard, able to run all day and work in both penalty areas, almost simultaneously.

Yet here sit South Africa. Failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations and at No86 in the fickle FIFA tables, the lowest ranked side ever to host a World Cup

It can’t be right. Given you’ve got only 31 nations visiting here in June, there’s a good chance you’ll finish better than 86th, especially if Pienaar is given free reign in your midfield. Arguably, with the captain’s armband on. He’s 27, he played in Cape Town, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Liverpool, he has the experience.

Remember, Benni McCarthy and Aaron Makoena have also been scoring Premier League goals in recent weeks.

But it worries me when, this week, I hear Bafana coach Carlos Parreira saying he’ll build his team around a core of South African-based players.

Before this epic cricket series between South Africa and England started I got around to a few grounds and saw, amongst others, your champions Supersports United beat lowly Jomo Cosmos 3-0 at a nearly-empty Loftus Versfeld.

And let’s be frank, Stevie Pienaar would have made a huge difference in a game like that. The idea that Parreira may build his side around players not playing in the European leagues is deeply flawed, though understandable.

He’s taken 29 players down to Durban (why not at high altitude? All the big World Cup teams will be preparing at altitude given the World Cup final will be played at 5,000 feet).for friendlies against Swaziland on Saturday in Chatsworth and Zimbabwe at the superb Moses Mabhida stadium next Wednesday.

I know he’s unhappy about Elrio van Heerden not getting much action for Blackburn – he’s now in Turkey with Sivasspor and trying to regain full fitness.

And you can sympathise with Parreira when he says: “I don’t think David Moyes will allow Pienaar to join us before the World Cup because he has become a vital player for them. We will have to wait until late in May for him and Mokoena at Portsmouth.”

He’s right, but that doesn’t mean the side shouldn’t be built around Pienaar variously described as “superb”, “a revelation” and “unstoppable” by the British papers this morning.

Let’s take the view from Pienaar himself, who handles himself well in front of the cameras, as a captain-elect should: “I would definitely say I am a more complete player since coming to Everton.

“I do think South Africa might still surprise a few people at the World Cup. We players have to be ready to show we are not just a team with a few individuals. Part of the problem is that, compared with some other African countries, some of our players are not hungry enough. Maybe we’re not very adventurous and don’t like to be away from home

For us to go to the second round, that is the expectation of the people. I think we can get out of the group.

“Mexico and Uruguay play quite similar to us, only France will be a bit of a challenge for us.

“The crowd will boost the players and we will be confident with them behind us. We hope they will be behind us.”

Pienaar came out strongly in defence of South Africa when the British press were linking the Togo team bus shootings in Cabinda with the upcoming World Cup. And the man born in Westbury near Johannesburg but thriving on Merseyside, says: “You know, things are getting better in Westbury. The crime’s coming down a bit.

“I don’t think too many visitors will going to Westbury but they will be coming to a beautiful country and the tournament is going to be very good for South Africa.”

Remember, the hosts invariably do shockingly well at World Cups. South Korea, France, Germany, Argentina... blimey, even England won it when they got to host it 44 years ago.

With Pienaar and the vuvuzela-blasting home fans behind them, who knows what South Africa are capable of producing in five months' time?

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