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!”
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.”
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.”
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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