It may have all ended with a bit of a whimper, but Steven Pienaar, who announced his retirement from football this week, was South Africa’s last great export into European club football, a genuine midfield talent whose achievements look unlikely to be matched by anyone from these shores anytime soon.
One only needed to look at the tributes that came in from the two clubs where he spent most of his time to see the impact Pienaar had in European football since leaving Ajax Cape Town as a 19-year-old to join Ajax Amsterdam.
It was in Holland that Pienaar burst onto the world stage, winning two Eredivisie titles, as well as flying the South African flag in the Uefa Champions League.
“Thanks for your service to Ajax. We loved your smile, dancing and great way of playing football! You are always welcome in Amsterdam, Steven!” tweeted Ajax this week, after Pienaar announced on SABC television that he was hanging up his boots.
The other club at which Pienaar has forever earned a place in the heart of the supporters is, of course, Everton in the English Premier League, where he shone in two separate spells, between 2008 and 2011, and after a slightly disappointing stint at Tottenham Hotspur, between January 2012 and the end of the 2015/16 season, though he did struggle with injuries towards the end of his career at the Toffees.
Pienaar struck up a special bond with the Everton supporters, and his partnership down the left flank with Leighton Baines was at times almost telepathic.
“We just used to talk a lot in the dressing room,” Pienaar told the Liverpool Echo this week. “It was just about getting to know each other off the field as well.
“I’m a more reserved guy but Bainesy is more of a chatty guy. He used to say he couldn’t understand what I was saying because I used to mumble. But it was about us working hard on the training ground and taking that out onto the pitch.
“When I joined Everton, I think that’s where I played my best football,” added Pienaar this week in a video released by Everton.
“The support has been great, for me and the club. For me, obviously, representing the Blues was something special. When you have love from the supporters, you feel at home, you’re more relaxed, and you can just enjoy making the supporters happy. And that’s what I wanted to do, to take everything from the training ground onto the field.
“Obviously, the supporters don’t see what you are doing on the training field, but then you have the weekend games, where you have to really show them that you really appreciate the love they’ve been giving you, and wear the shirt with pride.”
On the international scene, Pienaar was part of the Bafana Bafana squad at two World Cups, as a young, upcoming star in 2002, though he did not play in Japan and South Korea, and in more of a starring role in 2010 in South Africa, though it all ended in disappointment as Bafana were knocked out in the group stages.
Pitso Mosimane also struck up a good relationship with Pienaar after taking over as Bafana coach in 2010, ultimately naming “Schillo” as captain. Bafana, however, failed to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations and Mosimane was sacked after a poor start to qualifying for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
Pienaar then announced his retirement from international football in October 2012, citing the physical demands of playing for both club and country. And the feeling has to be that Bafana Bafana never quite got to see the best of Pienaar’s talent.
There can be little doubt, however, that he loved representing his country, and on the SABC this week, Pienaar picked his Bafana debut, against Turkey in a pre-World Cup friendly in 2002, as one of the most memorable moments of his career.
“I would say when I signed my first professional contract with Ajax Cape Town, but also playing my first game for the national team against Turkey was for me a special moment,” said Pienaar.
“Two days before that we had played Scotland and I was grumpy the whole time and walked around. Bra J (Jomo Sono) was like ‘why are you grumpy, you are only a young boy’, he said. I said ‘I want to play’. He put me in (for the Turkey game), and said ‘play where you want’. That is a stand-out moment of my career.”
It is a bit sad, it must be said, that Pienaar couldn’t have an Indian summer of a season back in the Absa Premiership, after signing for Wits at the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign. After just a handful of appearances for the Clever Boys, they agreed to mutually terminate his contract in January.
“For me to come back home, I always wanted to finish my career in South Africa,” Pienaar told the SABC. “I just wanted to come back and enjoy the last two years as planned, but things go on … you come back to the country to a new environment, you have to settle in … it was totally different to what I was used to for the last 17 years.”
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