Pienaar: ‘I escaped a hotel fire with Zlatan… and fly-kicked a burglar’

Steven Pienaar played for Ajax Cape Town, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and South Africa

What are you doing now?

My internship with Ajax. I’ve got my UEFA Licence and I’m working with the under-16s as assistant coach. It’s a step into coaching at one of the best youth development systems in the world. I want to be a coach.

I’m also helping a friend who is the coach of an amateur club in Holland. I coach the boys every day to get more experience with sessions. You have to start learning at the bottom, standing on the field, helping the kids out. Several of the players are refugees who’ve come from Africa. Others come from Suriname or Aruba (countries with Dutch heritage in South America and the Caribbean). Some have played professional football but can’t get work permits as they’re undocumented. Some were escaping civil war and they have very sad stories.

They all live in the Bijlmer, a neighbourhood (in Amsterdam) where a lot of black African people live. Most of my friends are there and they want to help the kids develop. It’s ideal for me, because it’s close to where Ajax train.

I see the youngsters and it reminds me of myself growing up in a neglected corner of South Africa. I grew up in the Westbury township near Johannesburg, where there’s crime and poverty. You survive by hustling on the streets. I also started playing for an amateur club when there were few opportunities.

In Amsterdam, people don’t care about these boys because they have a stigma on their head. They struggle to get work, so they play football to keep their minds busy away from trouble and all the other challenges they are facing in life. Football makes them happy; I see it in their faces. Their lives are challenging, but when we go on the field it’s like they’re free and don’t even have those challenges.

When you coach these kinds of players, you have to explain how you want things to be done. There’s a lot of explaining and it’s different to what it’s like when I’m with the Ajax boys. That’s challenging for a young coach, but Holland was the first place I moved to when I left Africa. It’s like my second home and I speak Dutch. My kids do too. I’ve learned languages along the way. Nine in total.

How was it moving to Amsterdam at a young age (18)? Benni McCarthy said he moved from South Africa and saw all the scantily-clad women in the red light district and thought, ‘This is the life for me!’

My experience was different because I came for trials as a kid while still at high school. I made my professional debut in South Africa but moved with a family in Holland to keep me under control. I moved in January (2001) and that was the first time I’d ever seen snow. It was a tough first few months for me.

Didn’t you room with Zlatan Ibrahimovic when you broke into the Ajax team?

I usually roomed with Zlatan and Rafa (van der Vaart). I remember one game at Groningen where we stayed near the town the night before the game. Hooligans in Holland can be quite active, but our hotel was quite secluded and we didn’t think there would be any problems. We had our evening meal and then went to our rooms. We watched TV and went to sleep only to be woken at one in the morning by the club doctor, wearing pyjamas. Very calmly, he told us not to panic but that there was a fire and we needed to take our bags and leave the room.

“What do you mean, a fire?” I asked.

Pienaar, Van der Vaart, Julien Escude, Ibrahimovic and John Heitinga face a free-kick in 2004 (Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)

“The team bus is on fire,” he replied.

That’s when I remembered that the bus was parked right below our window. I pulled the curtains back, saw the flames jumping high and thought the bus was going to explode. I picked up my bag. Zlatan was standing there and said: “Don’t just leave, you have to get my bag as well!”

We waited outside the hotel for 90 minutes in the freezing cold and weren’t sure when the game was going to be played. Ronald Koeman, our coach, told us that we should go back to sleep. I slept with one eye open.

The game was going to be on. Koeman, who was like a father figure for us, said: “Look at what they put you through. Have a cold shower, because half of you are asleep, and win the game”. We won 2-0 and Zlatan scored.

Zlatan and I would have single beds and there wasn’t that much space between them. Sometimes, for no reason, he’d just start kicking me. I’ve no idea why, but he was a nice guy. We lived close by and we’d play PlayStation together. Good times.

Didn’t Zlatan once throw a pair of scissors at Mido?

It was the other way around! Two young boys who were winners. They were actually good friends. We’d played a Champions League game and they had an argument about who hadn’t passed the ball or something. The argument started on the pitch and carried on in the dressing room. My seat was next to Zlatan’s. Mido was taking off the strapping from his ankles with scissors. He threw the scissors and they hit the wall between Zlatan and me.

Senior players said it was good that we argued, because it showed we had a winning mentality.

It came out in the papers and looked like a big deal, but they actually drove home together after the game. We had a tight dressing room. There were senior players like Jari Litmanen and youngsters like myself and Zlatan. Christian Chivu was our captain, the man who’d do anything for the team. Good on the ball, strong, tactically sound and he could score for a defender. I would have had him in my team before any other player.

I liked the feeling we had at Ajax. Koeman would tell a young player like me to stand up for myself, to show more courage, to be myself, to take free kicks — even if senior players said not to.

The rule was that Dutch was the first language of the dressing room. We all learned Dutch, and English was also spoken. A lot of the former players are now back coaching at Ajax. That’s a good thing.

In 2006, you moved to Borussia Dortmund — a fallen giant back then with financial problems. You were billed as a replacement for Tomas Rosicky…

Dortmund were recovering from all the money they had lost and were just starting to be stable again.

At Ajax, there was not a lot of pressure on me as a young player coming through. I hadn’t cost a lot of money, I was young. Dortmund was different. I was a totally different player to Tomas, but I had to be ready and it was hard to adjust in the first few months. We had (three) different coaches in one season with different styles. I played 27 games that season and it was a step up from the Dutch league.

Christian Worns, Pienaar and Delron Buckley (right) run during a Dortmund training session (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The dressing room was different at Dortmund, with less unity and several groups. Some of the players didn’t even speak to me in the morning or say hello. I’d never seen that before. Some were helpful, others were not.

We played a game at rivals Schalke and lost. We had a signing session the next day where the supporters turned up and showed that they were not happy with us. They were right to do this, but they should have also understood the team was coming back up and it would take time. We did improve.

Goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller was the mainstay. Did he help you settle?

No. He was not accepting at all of me. I had a fall-out with him. We played Borussia Monchengladbach away and some of my former team-mates were there. We lost the game and I spoke to my former team-mates after. We had a joke. He (Weidenfeller) came in and was like, “You are sitting here laughing”. I said to him, “You have no idea what I’m talking about. We are talking about life, not football. Calm down”.

“Calm down? Who are you telling to calm down? You are not taking this seriously.”

“Hey, if you have a problem then tell me to my face and don’t go around it.”

Christian, the captain, came between us. It wasn’t about that game. It was something he had against foreign players. Afterwards, we got on quite well and at the end of the season when I was going, he came up to me and said that he wished I was staying and that the team needed me.

So why did you leave Dortmund in 2007?

There was speculation about me going but the manager, Thomas Doll, didn’t want me to leave. My agent called me and asked me what I thought of Everton. They had finished fourth and fifth (actually sixth in 2006-07).

Dortmund were willing to do a deal to let me go — a sign that while the coach wanted me, others didn’t. I only went on loan and flew to Los Angeles to join the Everton team. It was a close group but they welcomed me immediately, wanted to help me and took me out with them. My first impression was, “Wow, this is so different to what I experienced last season.”

Pienaar says Arteta – seen here in 2010 – was coaching, even when he was still playing (Photo: Nigel French – PA Images via Getty Images)

Mikel Arteta, Phil Neville and Joseph Yobo really helped me. Alan Stubbs and Phil Jagielka too — even though he’d just joined. Even then, Mikel was always busy coaching, analysing and watching. He could read the game very well and he would coach players during matches. He wasn’t only busy with his own game, but the game of the whole team.

The first time I met David Moyes he said, “Welcome. I hope you enjoy your spell with us. I certainly hope you do!” Then he added: “I’ve seen you play and it will take you some time to settle into the Premier League, it’s a different style of football. Don’t stress, you’ll get your opportunity. Just work hard.”

Moyes worked hard himself. He took Everton into the top four (in 2004-05) on a budget far smaller than other clubs. He deserved to get that Manchester United job and he deserved more time than he got to do it with a lot of older players coming towards the end of their career. United are still busy with the project (six years later), they’ve been at that ground-zero stage several times. Why not give him more time?

You settled in well at Everton…

I liked Goodison Park, even though I always felt so nervous driving there that I played gospel music in my car. But I was fine once I got there. You really felt like you were walking into a historic football stadium when you went into Goodison. Some stadiums don’t have that soul or life. It was half the size of Dortmund, where I’d been, but the people feel really close to you and on top of you.

I had a good partnership with Leighton Baines on the left. We were two honest players on one side who worked hard for each other. We’d do the dirty work, the hard work.

Do you get more credit on Merseyside than in your native South Africa?

Definitely. I spent a lot of time there and feel the fans appreciated my hard work and always being up to fight for my team. In South Africa, people didn’t think I gave everything for my country. Yet maybe they don’t realise that, unlike when I played in Europe, whenever I came back for South Africa there was always a lot of new players for every single game. Like, nine new players who I didn’t know and two days to train with them. I was playing games barely knowing new players’ names. Two days is not enough to get to know how someone plays. Teams need a base and foundation and we didn’t have that with the national team. It’s hard to win games like this and the players who played in Europe tended to get the blame.

Another time, I accidentally got knocked out during training by (former Tottenham defender) Bongani Khumalo.

You were about to join Chelsea in January 2011 but joined Spurs instead. What happened?

Harry Redknapp, that’s what happened. When you meet him and start talking to him, he makes you change your mind. He told me he wanted me and Gareth Bale on the left and I liked that idea. I made the right decision to join Spurs, a team playing Champions League football, but the problem was one of us was always injured so we couldn’t get the partnership going. I was frustrated and out for a long time. I didn’t have enough patience when I came back because I just wanted to play football. Gareth moved to Real Madrid, I moved back to Everton.

What happened on the transfer deadline night (in January 2012) when you left Tottenham to go back on loan to Everton?

I told the manager I wanted to leave in the dressing room. The manager told me that he was going to put me in the team there and then. And that I could leave after the game.

I played the game and then Harry said: “I can’t let you go. I want you to stay. I will need you in the second half of the season.”

“But Boss,” I said, “if you had wanted me to stay then you would have played me. I want to go on loan to get match fitness and then come back and play here next season. My mind is already in Liverpool.”

Harry wouldn’t let me go, so I said: “If you won’t let me go, I’ll just go to South Africa for the rest of the season and you can fine me all you like. I just want to play football and not be a number.” Eventually, he gave in. I’d packed my suitcase and I went straight back to Liverpool that night.

The Everton players were happy I was back, but there were mixed feelings from the fans. The only thing that would make people forget me leaving Everton would be by playing well, and that’s what I did.

You might have remembered me at Old Trafford (in April 2012). We’d just come off a bad FA Cup (semi-finals) defeat to Liverpool. We had to prove a point that we don’t choke when we play against big teams. Manchester United were about to win the league (though Manchester City famously pipped them on the final day) but we were in form and Moyesie told us to put the Liverpool game behind us. He said we had nothing to lose against a team who, if they won, would basically be champions of England.

We kept going against United, we had great chances throughout. We dominated the first half and it was 1-1. United got two quick goals to make it 3-1, but we kept going and going. Even when we were 4-2 down near the end after Marouane (Fellaini) scored for us. That’s when Nikica (Jelavic) and then I scored to make it 4-4. We deserved it.

What changes did Moyes’ successor Roberto Martinez make?

He wanted us to play more attacking football. That happened, and we scored a lot of goals. In his second season, he wanted us to play even more attacking football. Some games it came off, some games it did not. Moyes wanted his teams to be organised, Martinez wanted a more open team who attacked from the first minute and scored as many goals as we could. But we didn’t have enough of those kind of players to go full-out attack.

Pienaar says Moyes made him welcome at Everton and was unlucky to be sacked by Manchester United (Photo: Nigel French – PA Images via Getty Images)

What hurt you the most about leaving Everton for the last time? Do you feel like you didn’t get a proper goodbye?

The manager (Martinez) left, the situation was not good. Young players were picked in the final game of the season, but there were four or five players leaving who would have liked to say goodbye. We didn’t play and didn’t do that. I can see that the crowd wanted to see some young players, but it was still a sad situation I couldn’t say goodbye. That’s life. Sometimes you want to write your own script but it’s not always possible.

What was Sunderland like, again under Moyes (in 2016-17)?

They’re a great club, it’s a football city. You can see the football club is the main thing that the people cared about.

The manager tried to calm things down and settle the club, but there were not enough players who were up for the fight. Not enough players who wanted to help the club survive. They were there because they had good contracts and they were more worried about them than what they were doing on the field. Unlike at Everton, you could feel that there was no hunger or desire in the players. They were there because of money. I could feel that and I was disappointed in the attitude of the players. They let the fans down. I remember telling one of the physios that I’d never come across so good a set of players with such a “don’t care” attitude. It was shocking to me.

You left Sunderland (after their relegation that season) and after a year at Bidvest Wits in South Africa, you called it quits (shortly before turning 36). How did it feel when you started to realise you were coming to the end of your career?

I actually announced my retirement on live TV. I don’t know if I made the right decision. I went to Bidvest because it was close to my family in Johannesburg. I wanted to play without pressure but things didn’t work out the way I wanted. The hunger wasn’t there anymore. I regret the move to Bidvest – I think the other players enjoyed it more than me. After, I could have gone to Ajax Cape Town and helped the younger players there. I was talking to the manager, Benni McCarthy, but I was unsure about moving away from Johannesburg. I was asked about my future on TV and announced that I was quitting. My head wasn’t in the best place.

Why?

Maybe because, the night before, I tackled a robber in my house. We had been robbed a few months before when the alarm had gone off with my family in the house — I didn’t realise we had been broken into until I noticed the television was missing. The kids were in shock. We decided to move to Holland and were in the process of packing.

Then, the night before I went on TV, the alarm went off again. I jumped out of bed in my underwear and saw a man walking off with my new TV.

I thought: “Are you taking the piss, walking off with my TV as if it’s a normal thing to do?”

I fly-kicked him and the TV fell on the floor. Me and him wrestled and exchanged blows. He was getting nervous. Now it was his time to be in shock at 2am. I was tired of getting robbed and put him down.

The man shouted, “I’ll shoot you!” and I thought, “What if he does have a gun?” He ran off outside. I tried to follow but went back to my house, got into my car and drove around trying to find him again but he had disappeared.

Is your future in South Africa or in Europe?

I enjoyed doing TV work in South Africa and I’m enjoying being a coach at Ajax. I didn’t enjoy it at first — the hours are long — but the more I’m on the field, the more I like it.

I have a tournament for kids in my neighbourhood in South Africa, a neglected place where kids don’t get opportunities. Over 100 teams play in it. There are talented footballers but nobody goes there to scout them. I tell the parents that they have to look for the opportunities. But scouts do come and look at players at the tournament I organise. My neighbourhood is more than stories about crime and gangsters. It’s a friendly township with a great history. Oh, and I became a father again yesterday!

 

Andy Mitten is a journalist and author. He founded the best-selling United We Stand fanzine as a 15-year-old. A journalism graduate, he’s interviewed over 500 famous footballers past and present. His work has taken him to over 100 countries, writing about football from Israel to Iran, Brazil to Barbados. Born and bred in Manchester, he divides his time between his city of birth and Barcelona, Spain. Follow Andy on Twitter @andymitten.