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Pienaar Back Home and Hungry For More Success

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Steven Pienaar Wits

There is no doubt that after 16 years playing in Europe, Steven Pienaar could have hung up his boots at the end of last season and drifted quietly towards a luxurious retirement from the game.

It was intriguing to many then that he instead signed a one-year contract with South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) champions BidVest Wits, with the option for a further season if both parties agree, to prolong his career in what is for him a low-key environment compared to where he has played before.

As recently as 2014, while still at Everton in the English Premier League, Pienaar was reportedly earning around $5 million a year through salary and sponsorship, and he is arguably South Africa’s richest current sportsman.

So he is not doing it for the money, even if FORBES AFRICA understands he is on $35,000 a month at Wits, but rather for the sporting opportunity to fulfil an ambition he had before leaving Ajax Cape Town for Europe in 2001.

He had been close to a move to Orlando Pirates when he was released by Everton at the end of the 2015/16 season, but instead chose to link-up with long-time mentor David Moyes at Sunderland.

That final season in England saw the side relegated and Pienaar released again. This time he says he wanted to make good on his commitment to return to the PSL and was impressed most by Wits coach Gavin Hunt.

“There were other options but, when I met with the coach, his interest in my family touched me,” says Pienaar.

“It’s an honor to play for the champions and I wanted to play in Africa [the African Champions League], so the option was on the table and it was an easy decision for me to make.”

“I have worked under top coaches in the past and coming to work with coach Hunt gives me an opportunity to work with a champion coach, a great coach. He might even help me if I want to become a coach!”

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Wits have had a difficult start to the new campaign and Pienaar, the former captain of South Africa, has been used in short bursts as his 35-year-old body is not up to playing 90 minutes on a regular basis, especially on the at times heavy pitches of the PSL that are nothing like the “carpets” he played on in Europe.

Pienaar says he is relishing a role as mentor to young players off the pitch and it is during these difficult times for the club that his experience may be most key.

“I want to help the young players as much as I can,” he says, adding that Hunt and Wits made it clear they valued his contribution on and off the pitch.

“For me the most important thing was to join a club where I feel welcome and appreciated. That was important. I wanted to come to South Africa and finish the last few seasons of my career here.”

“Coming from the [English] Premier League, I have spent the last 10 years there, so it is going to be a different level and I have to get used to it as quickly as possible.”

Pienaar says that walking into a squad that has just won the league is no easy feat and the fact that they have not started the season well provides added pressure.

“I’ve joined a club that has just won the league, so it is going to be a challenge for me to show what I can do, because joining the defending champions is not always easy.”

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Despite all his achievements at European clubs like Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland, Pienaar says he still gets nervous before games.

“As a player, you always have butterflies and if you don’t, you don’t love the sport,” he says. “It’s part and parcel of the game and playing in Europe so long, there will be a lot of eyes on me, but I will just have to take it in my stride.”

Pienaar is determined to get the most out of the last one or two seasons of his playing career, but it will be nothing like the demands of the Premier League, and that suits him just fine, though he would never give less than his best for Wits.

“There is always pressure in the Premier League. Cameras are always on you, the fans want you to be playing your absolute best every match and the coach will expect nothing less than 100% effort,” he says.

“It’s definitely the toughest league I have played in. It’s so quick. The tempo is high all game. I tried to slow it down when I could, but sometimes you just have to run until you drop.”

“Other leagues, Italy for example, are more technical, but to me are not as exciting.”

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Pienaar has readily admitted that the happiest time of his career was at Ajax Amsterdam, where the style of football suited him and he was able to express himself on the pitch.

It was a wrench when he left for an ill-fated move to Dortmund in 2006, where he spent just a single season and never connected with the club. His career was revived by much happier times at Everton and he says he does not regret making the difficult decision to leave Holland.

“I was playing my best in Amsterdam and I enjoyed myself the most. It’s a club and a league that allows you to really express yourself as a creative player and I think I was at my best there. I also really enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle.”

“[But] I don’t think you can have regrets. People always ask me, why did you leave Amsterdam, why did you go to Germany, why did you leave South Africa? You make the decision you think is best at the time and some work out, some don’t.”

“It was a lot of pressure and sometimes I wished I could just go back to South Africa and be with my family. Live a quiet life.”

Finally, after 16 years, he is now back in the PSL and with that pressure he felt in Europe largely lifted, can look forward to simpler times.

“I am happy because my daughter and mum haven’t seen me play for a long time,” he says. – Written by Nick Said

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The Cab Driver, Coach And The Cup

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It has been 22 years since he led South Africa to glory in the African Cup of Nations. In a new book, Clive Barker recounts his career as a salesman by day and taxi driver by night, and to FORBES AFRICA, that he is not done with the future of African football.

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Chasing The Grand Slam With Kevin Anderson

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Kevin Anderson had the biggest match of his career in the recent Wimbledon final, becoming the first male player to feature in the decider under the South African flag since 1921.
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The New No. 6 Role Model In Rugby

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Siya Kolisi’s elevation to the captaincy of the South African national rugby side drew global interest for what it symbolized but he admits it has been a tough road to earn his place as arguably the most iconic player in the country.

Kolisi comes from a poor Eastern Cape background and having faced a number of tests of his own strength and perseverance, has risen to be among the most inspirational sportsmen in South Africa.

The importance of having a first black captain of the Springboks, which during apartheid was seen as the preserve of the white minority and the political power they yielded, cannot be understated and as such Kolisi has been fielding interviews from around the globe, including American network HBO, with the United States certainly not a traditional market for rugby content.

It is perhaps hard for younger generations to understand why Kolisi being handed the role – and wearing the same number six jersey that Francois Pienaar and former South African president Nelson Mandela at the 1995 World Cup final – is such an important moment for South African rugby, but it is all about making the game more inclusive to all races.

Anecdotal evidence of South Africans who had never watched a rugby match before rushing home to be in front of their television sets for Kolisi’s first test leading the side against England at Ellis Park on June 9 were plentiful.

Suddenly, there is a role model, an individual that many black South Africans can identify with, leading the team against another major rugby power.

Siya Kolisi of the Springboks during the Castle Lager Incoming Series 1st Test between South Africa and France at Loftus Versfeld Pretoria, South Africa. Photo via Getty Images

But Kolisi admits that it needed a stern few words from Stormers coach Robbie Fleck in 2016 to push him in the right direction after making little impact in the early part of his career as he battled with the demands placed on a professional rugby player.

“I had a conversation with the coach and he told me I had to grow up, basically,” Kolisi tells FORBES AFRICA. “Since that day, I haven’t looked back. It’s not been easy, it’s been tough. I won’t lie, I had to mature a lot.

“Obviously now, I’m a leader at home as well, I have got kids that I must be a role model for. I had to change a lot of my ways.”

Kolisi was raised by his grandmother in the Zwide township near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, but his sporting prowess earned him a scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School and changed his fortunes.

“I’m grateful to her, because she did everything she could to give me a life. She would go without food so that I could eat,” he said recently at a press conference.

“I couldn’t speak a word of English when I first attended Grey High, but my mates taught me and helped me with homework.

“Obviously, coming from the township and not having a lot, and coming to Grey, your dreams start becoming much bigger because you have so much. You have everything you need to be whatever you want to be.

“I started dreaming big. When I was in the township, to think that I would be here, you don’t dream like that. That’s my dream one day, to change that mentality [for others].”

Kolisi was snapped up by the Western Province Rugby Union in 2010, lured to Cape Town by their then coach Rassie Erasmus, who is now in charge of the Springboks.

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He was handed the captaincy of the Stormers at the start of 2017, but there were still some murmurs of discontent from skeptical sections of the public when he was given the reins of the Springboks in June, with critics saying it was a political appointment to appease the South African government and deliver transformation targets for South African rugby.

“I can’t control what other people think of me, I can only control what I can do on the field,” Kolisi says.

“I think it is a genuine appointment by coach Rassie because he is not that kind of a person. I have known him since I was 18 years old. We sat down and he was straightforward with me and that is how it is. You always know where you stand with him.

“Coach Rassie is not a politician and neither am I. I am a rugby player and all I want to do is to play well and inspire South Africans of all races.

“I know how much of a big deal this thing is for the country and it is a great thing for me to be a role-model. As a Springbok, it is not only about rugby, it’s the things you do off the field.”

Kolisi’s first series in charge ended in a 2-1 home success over England and with a World Cup in Japan looming next year, he could be selected to lead the side at that global showpiece tournament.

But with other players who were previously named as captain ahead of him returning from injury, such as loose-forward Warren Whiteley and lock Eben Etzebeth, the ball will be in Erasmus’ court to see if he will stick with his historic appointment.

– By Nick Said

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