The Ajax press department were once again kind enough to set up a quick player interview for Ajax USA during our 5th Annual Rendezvous in Amsterdam, March 2005. While the rest of the group was enjoying lunch at the SoccerWorld pub, Ajax USA's Jim McGough sat down with Ajax's South-African midfielder, Steven Pienaar, in the press room...
If you watch Steven Pienaar play, you'll notice quickness and toughness, and a boldness that might lead you to believe this is one brash and confident kid. Talking to Steven is another matter: soft-spoken and extremely humble, Steven gives the credit for his sucess to God, to (some of) his coaches, and to his mother. Now, he faces more challenges: a former first team star, Steven has recently overcome a series of tough injuries and must now scrap his way back into the starting line-up. His confidence was no-doubt boosted by his recent game-winning goal for South Africa in World Cup Qualifying against Uganda on 26 March.
You played for Ajax Cape Town before joining Ajax. How did you originally become involved with Ajax Cape Town?
"It's a long story, but let me just keep it short... I came to Amsterdam on trial with another player from South Africa, but they couldn't keep me because they had so many players that played central midfield: Rafaël van der Vaart, Youssouf Hersi and Wesley Sneijder. They can only give a contract to the people they can keep the busiest. So they sent me to Ajax Cape Town. I went back and studied with the national team of South Africa, and Ajax Cape Town came and watched, and after that they asked me if I could join."
How old were you then?
"When I signed with the team I was 17 years old. The coach was Leo van Veen, a Dutchman. I trained with them for about one year, one year with Ajax Cape Town. Then I came and played in a youth tournament in Holland. That's where Ajax saw me again, and they were impressed. That's how I came to Ajax Amsterdam. There were scouts from all the major clubs at the tournament, and I had a couple of offers to go to other clubs in Holland, but Ajax comes first."
Pienaar in action against his former club, Ajax
Cape Town, on 12 January, 2004. [Photo: Ajax.nl]
And first you were with Young Ajax for some time?
"Yeah, I was in the second team for six months. I joined them in January, which is right in the middle of the season. After that I joined the first team. But I sat on the bench for some time. That was when Co Adriaanse was still the coach, and I never played one minute. Then he got fired and Koeman came, and I started playing."
You didn't play one minute for Co Adriaanse?
"No, I only sat on the bench, and a couple of times I warmed up. But I never played."
And then how long after Koeman took over before you saw first team action?
"Well, I went back to South Africa just a week after he came, and then I came back in January and I played my first game against Volendam, and I went to the training camp and then went back to the second team for a couple of games, and then began playing in the first team. I had my debut against NAC Breda. I don't exactly remember when..." [We do: on February 24, 2002 - JM].
But you remember the moment, I'm sure...
"Yeah, I came in at half-time, we were leading at that time."
What are the qualities that allow a player to move from Young Ajax to the first team?
"It depends on your qualities, and the coach of course. If he likes the way you play, if he thinks you're good enough to move to the first team... For me, there were a lot of quality players in the second team at that time, but with a little bit of luck and with God's help, I went to the first team."
I read a little bit about an injury you took, a muscular injury. Can you tell me about that?
"Well, I took a knock in training, just the day after we played Celta da Vigo in the Champions League. We played a 7 against 7 and I got a hard knock from behind from a knee, and it was really swollen and I think two days after that, like now, we were scheduled to play against PSV, but away. I really wanted to try to get healthy. So I went to the physio, and he told me to put ice on and when I get home, to ice it a couple of times. So I did what they asked me to do, because I am just a player. But unfortunately, the second time I iced it, after 12 minutes, my foot just went numb. I took the ice off it, and that was it. Nerve damage. Took me out for four months. It was sad."
Pienaar in the line-up for his unofficial Ajax-1 debut, in a frinedly against
Volendam in January 2002. [Photo: Louis van de Vuurst/ Ajax.nl]
Do you feel that you've recovered from that leg injury now?
"Yeah, I'm not injured and I'm fully recovered. When I came back from injury I scored a goal, and since then and I played all the games, starting. And then a new season, I played like the first 10 games, 12 games, and then I got injured again with my knee. That took me out again I think a month or something, from November to January. And it was difficult because all the time I come back I felt I was fit with my knee, and then I feel pain again, and then I felt well again, playing two games with the second team, and then back into the starting eleven and I got injured again with my other knee. And now I just recovered from another injury. Now, my goal is just to stay fit, to be injury free, that's my goal now."
Steven Pienaar talking to Ajax USA's Jim McGough. [Photo: Dan Noppert/Ajax USA]
My last question is about your life outside of soccer. I've read about your involvement with some youth programs. In Cape Town?
"No, not in Cape Town. I have an organization here in Holland, it's called Kerk en Actie, 'Church and Action', to give youth in prison, juveniles, a second chance when they get out of jail, in Holland. It's working in Holland, and in South Africa. To give them a second chance so people can appreciate them and to give them another way out.
"I also have another program, for abused woman and abused children, in Johannesburg. A foundation to help them to learn about their rights, to stand up for their rights, to make people aware that they are human beings. It's important. I really appreciate being around women, because I have a mother and I wouldn't like it if someone beats my mother. And now I have three sisters. I never had a father, and I was always used to being around women.
"And also AIDS awareness in South Africa. Everybody knows this is a really big problem in South Africa. We have campaigns to give stuff out, like condoms, and doctor resources, and sometimes companies help out. And so this is to show people that there is someone who cares."
Ajax USA is grateful to Steven Pienaar for his time and candor. (JM)