/ 31 May 2012

Enter the real Stevie P

Everton's midfielder Steven Pienaar
Everton's midfielder Steven Pienaar

‘FREEEEEEE Steee-ven Pienaar!” That’s the chorus of a new Everton fan song – a plaintive parody of the 1984 hit Free Nelson Mandela by the Specials. The ditty doesn’t explicitly compare White Hart Lane with Robben Island, or Harry Redknapp with PW Botha, but the gist is that Spurs should unconditionally release the Bafana midfielder from his cruel R33-million-a-year captivity.

Pienaar became an extra on the Tottenham set soon after his move from Everton 18 months ago. His outsider status was partially because of injury trouble, but it didn’t help his cause that all three jobs at which he excels (left-winger, playmaker and right-winger) were being well performed by three unbenchable operators in Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart.

After the South African’s scintillating four months on loan at Goodison Park, it can’t have escaped Redknapp that an on-form Pienaar is just as unbenchable. And given Spurs’ flaccid end to the season, the manager must have wondered what a difference a fit Pienaar might have made in central midfield, playing ahead of either Sandro or Scott Parker.

Now, with Bale and Modric tipped to skedaddle from White Hart Lane in pursuit of Champions League action, Pienaar’s exuberant skill and fiendish work rate could be just the ticket to revive the north Londoners. Don’t bet on cash-strapped Everton to beg or borrow the £70000 a week salary – plus a juicy transfer fee that would be needed to “free” him from the Redknapp regime.

Liberate Bafana
Whatever his fate in England, Pienaar must now liberate Bafana in Rustenburg – by shooting on sight. Ethiopia will invade the Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Sunday, providing the first obstacle on Bafana’s treacherous trek to the Brazil 2014 World Cup.

The Black Lions are by no means a puny outfit (they held Nigeria to a 2-2 home draw last year) but Bafana have no option but to bank three points – plus at least a few goals. The glaring lesson of the last qualification failure (aside from the importance of winning at home and reading the tie-breaking rules) was that goal difference is not a luxury consideration. A win isn’t a win if it should have been a drubbing.

The recall of Siyabonga Nomvethe will help, but Bafana’s long-term goal-scoring problem has been mainly about a shortage of goals from midfield – regular striker Katlego Mphela’s scoring ratio is excellent. Siphiwe Tshabalala has also contributed respectably over the years, but Pienaar owes South Africa goals.

It’s promising that he has begun to net more frequently for the Toffees – a respectable four strikes in 14 league games since February, including that impudent late equaliser against Manchester United, which rerouted the title race, and a gobsmacking long-range strike against Newcastle on the last day of term. Pienaar credits his new habit to Everton manager David Moyes, the man who blinks least on Earth, who dared him to become more selfish in the final third.

Selfishness has never come naturally to “Schillo”. He was born to pass, and there are precious few players around who can ping a tidy through-ball as quickly and imaginatively (Modric being one of those). According to Opta statistics, Pienaar has achieved a superb 83% pass accuracy rate during his loan spell with Everton. He has also managed an exceptional 78% pass accuracy in the final third (higher than the team averages of Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal) and an excellent 70% long-ball accuracy (compared with a 53% Everton team average). In his 14 outings, he cooked up a chance every 38 minutes and contributed six assists along with his goals.

Pienaar hasn’t yet been able to make his exceptional speed of thought count for Bafana in a memorable, critical victory against major opponents. This disconnect between club and country form is to some extent inevitable: international football is unavoidably stilted and error-prone compared with the hair-trigger tempo and fluency of the Premiership.

Even so, Pienaar’s Bafana career has been a tale of frustration. He has featured in only one Nations Cup tournament to date – Ghana 2008 and though he was arguably Bafana’s best player at South Africa 2010, he was not fully fit.

And despite Bafana’s well-documented flaws, Pienaar has teammates who share his appetite for a quicksilver passing game, and several of them approach his skill level in executing it. With Pienaar as the fulcrum, Bafana have often impressed with their attractive possession play, if not with their penetration.

Qualification seems unlikely from this vantage point, but it’s doable. Pitso Mosimane’s squad can reasonably expect to top a group containing Ethiopia, Botswana and Central African Republic if they apply themselves throughout. The final qualification stage will be a hair-raising lottery – a home-and-away eliminator against one of the 10 best sides on the continent.

If they do make it across the Atlantic, with Pienaar at the helm, he will become one of Africa’s 10 best players. He is 30, so this campaign is probably his last chance to tag his name on the wall of World Cup history. And as a footballer with such an acute sense of the game’s artistry, he deserves the balmy fields of Brazil as his defining stage.