The man they call 'The Axe', Aaron Mokoena went from the townships to captaining his country.
Aaron Mokoena: the pride of South Africa
Aaron Mokoena will again be a proud man when he leads South Africa out against Uruguay in Pretoria tonight. The Portsmouth captain, who is likely to leave the bankrupt English Premier League club over the summer, was buoyant when he spoke last week. "We can perform well and play good football," he said ahead of South Africa's 1-1 opening game draw with Mexico. "We'll be in conditions that we are used to, in front of people who will support us. We have reason to be optimistic. The team is getting better and we have some players who play in the top leagues, so I think we can do well."
Mokoena, 29, celebrated his 100th South Africa cap recently and is likely to become the country's all-time record appearance holder. "I started early," he said with a smile. He made his national team debut when he was 17, thus becoming the youngster player to wear the Bafana Bafana shirt. "I have been playing for my country since I was a teenager, but I didn't think about breaking records. I just want to be a good captain. I think that I have good leadership skills and that I haven't let South Africa down. I know there will come a time when I am an old man in the national team and there are younger players than me. I hope to have played for my country many times before that happens."
Mokoena's professional career has seen him play for Ajax, Germinal Beerschot and Genk in Belgium before he had a successful trial with Blackburn Rovers in January 2005. He went on to play more than 100 games for the English Premier League side. "Blackburn was a great club to play for and I loved my four years there, but I wanted more regular football and that's why I moved." He got that last season at Portsmouth, though he laughs off suggestions that their plight was tough because he knows how tough real life can be.
Known as "The Axe", Mokoena has a wicked boyhood scar on his right cheek and was deployed to break up play in the middle of the pitch for club and country. At times he seemed too coarse for the Premier League, as if he had done a term at the Paul Scholes' school of tackling. In one game, Arjen Robben, the Dutch winger who was then playing for Chelsea, was on the receiving end of a tackle which left him with a broken bone in his foot.
"It was an accident," Mokoena said. "When I heard he was out with broken bones, I felt really sad. I wouldn't feel great if somebody had done that to me, but I expect my opponent to compete. Bruises are part of the game and Arjen and I are still friends, because he knows it was not deliberate. When we play, he always jokes, 'Don't come near me, you,' and we have a laugh about it. "We go back to when I was at Ajax and he was at PSV [Eindhoven in Holland] and we would play in youth matches together. I don't think I'm one of the bad boys, and he knows I would never put his future at risk."
Mokoena grew up in the township of Boipatong, the scene of a massacre in June 1992 when 46 people died at the hands of the Inkatha Freedom Party. "There was political tension and apartheid which erupted into violence," Mokoena said. "It was terrible. There were pregnant women and small children killed. There were a lot of rumours saying that these people wanted to kill the young boys. So my mother had to protect me in any way and she dressed me as a girl.
"My mother raised me, my four brothers and two sisters single-handed during difficult times," he added. "Papa died when I was very young. But my mum is a tough woman. That's probably where I get it from. She was a nanny for a white family. It was hard for her but she did all she could for us. She was always trying, trying, trying. If she had only a bit of money then she would buy me football boots. She believed in me. She taught me to be responsible.
"Mum would never have believed I'd get where I am. I bought her a house when I joined Ajax. It was a surprise, she was crying. It's in a safe, secure area nearer her work. I've told her she should stop work, that I will look after her, but she doesn't like to relax. She's still doing the same job, with the same family. They treat her as a friend." Maria Mokoena will be a very proud woman indeed as she again watches her son lead out the Rainbow Nation as captain.