The Real Stevie Pby Stanley Zive / Images by Brett Rubin / 01.08.2013
In sporting terms Steven Pienaar is the picture of humility; a quiet talent that just gets on with the job. “I like to express myself on the field”, he says. However, off the pitch, there has been a fair share of controversy including a drink driving charge in 2010 and an assault charge last year resulting from a fracas in a local nightclub. His Twitter handle is @therealstevenpi. Is this simply to avoid confusion with another Steven Pienaar or an attempt to stress authenticity? I was dying to find out who he really is, both as a journalist and as a lifelong Everton fan. I touched down at OR Tambo International airport only to find that my interview slot had been flipped around and slashed in half. Did I just fly all the way from Cape Town to Joburg to walk into a footballing diva nightmare? Is this the real Stevie P? I would have to wait a bit longer to learn the truth. He was running late for our interview.
After twiddling my thumbs a while at the Puma Store in Braamfontein, where he was scheduled to sign merchandise, I spied a couple of guys trying on shirts for size and then asking for one in every colour. The entourage had arrived; the man couldn’t be far behind.
When the former Bafana Bafana star eventually sat down with me, all questions were filtered through dark sunglasses and a low slung cap. Pienaar’s body language suggested a painful shyness but the Coca Cola he was nursing hinted at another type of pain masked behind the shades. I know a red ambulance when I see one. He apologised for being a bit on edge but his wife was a few days overdue to give birth and he was expecting a call at any moment. Family and community are a large part of Steven’s life. This is apparent within moments of meeting him and, as he begins to open up, it becomes quite disarming.
The Barclays English Premier League, where Pienaar plies his trade, is currently on hiatus. Every offseason he visits his loved ones in South Africa as well as spearheading the Steven Pienaar Community Tournament. Now in its tenth year this youth soccer tournament has turned into something of a festival in Pienaar’s old Jozi neighbourhood of Westbury. “It’s about getting the people together” explains Pienaar, “not about the football. There’s not a lot happening in our community because of drugs and gangsterism.”
He is also quick to point out that his various community projects aren’t all down to him. He motions to his two friends who were trying on the shirts earlier. “It’s not about me. They do a lot of things that people don’t see.” It seems these two gentlemen are more than the stereo-typed hangers-on. They’re a pair of his boys that came up with Pienaar and are just as dedicated to remembering where they came from. Subsequent to the interview I spoke to them and they offered for me to share in the spread put out at the signing. Many of us would take advantage of some free swag if we were in their sponsored shoes, but not all of us would break bread with a passing journo. Like their famous friend, they were starting with a refreshing congeniality and candidness.
The Everton midfielder is a man in sync with the ethos of his club; a code of no nonsense professionalism instilled by former manager, David Moyes. “He doesn’t want prima donnas in the team”, affirms Pienaar. Moyes left at the end the last season to become Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United and the stern Scot has left an indelible impression on Pienaar. “He was like a father figure. We never had a fallout. Not once.” When asked about how he’ll slot into the plans of new manager, Roberto Martinez, he answered, “if you tell me to go stand in goals I will.”
At age thirty-one he reckons he’s got another four good years left, “at least”. He hopes to finish his playing days back home in Mzansi like local football legend, Benni McCarthy. There’s no denying it, Stevie P has tremendous admiration for Benni and looks to emulate him.
“He played in the Premier League before me. He paved the way for me.” But it’s not just about following in the footsteps of his friend and idol. Pienaar “can’t wait to move back home” and “misses the warmth” of the South African people.
When the interview was over it would’ve been remiss of me not to ask him to sign my Everton shirt that bears his name on the back and he was most obliging. When I pulled out a Bafana shirt my brother smuggled into my carry-on luggage one of the Puma reps called out, “that’s the wrong shirt”. I wasn’t sure if he was alluding to the fact Pienaar has retired from international football or, more likely, he was offended by my possession of the old Adidas shirt. The rivalry between the two brands is nearly as fierce as that on Merseyside. Steven waved him away dismissively and signed the shirt without hesitation. It was my very own Wayne’s World moment: contract or no, he placed the fans needs first.
Did I find the real Stevie P? I couldn’t say with absolute certainty, but the man I did find was at all times open, forthright and genuine. My lasting impression would be watching him fidget around in his Louis Vuitton loafers. It was still the nervous shoe-shuffling of a kid from humble beginnings, thrust into the spotlight, trying to do the best he can while everyone circles around, trying get their pound of flesh.
*Images © Brett Rubin.