When Steven Pienaar was a child, his mother Denise didn’t allow him to sit on the couch when he watched television. “You never knew when a bullet was going to come flying in through the window. If you were on the floor, you were below the level of the glass and safe. If you were on the couch, you were taking your life in your hands, and there were stories of people who had been hit by stray bullets.”

He grew up in the township of Westbury, quarter of an hour’s drive west of the centre of Johannesburg, beyond Melville. “What can I say about Westbury?” said Pienaar. “It’s among some rough areas in and around Johannesburg, but it had to be one of the roughest. It’s hard to describe just how bad it was, because gang violence, drug dealing and shootings were everywhere. It’s calmed down a bit now, but in those days, when I was eight or nine, you witnessed violence and drug dealing at close quarters on a daily basis. You grew up with it. It was part of your life and no one ever dared try to do anything about it.”

“Westbury?” said Cavin Johnson, the coach who discovered Pienaar. “I grew up there so I know about the place. During apartheid, it was very bad for any kids to grow up there. It was one of the violent places just like other townships – Soweto or Tembisa – full of drug abuse, crime and a high rate of unemployment.” 

And of course everything was made worse by apartheid. “I had some experience of it myself,” Pienaar told the Daily Mail, “because I can remember going to some shops with friends and being shot at with daisy guns. They fired small ball-bearings and you knew about it when they hit. It brought you out in a big red bruise and the people firing knew that. They were trying to do us as much harm as possible and they were doing it for one reason only. Because we were coloured.”

In 1994, the South African Football Association (SAFA) established the Transnet Football School of Excellence with the specific aim of unearthing talent from rural and underprivileged communities. The scheme discovered such players as Bernard Parker, a Dutch league champion with Twente in 2009-10 and twice a South African champion with Kaizer Chiefs; Daine Klate, a six-time South African champion with SuperSport United, Orlando Pirates and Bidvest Wits; Michael Modubi, who spent some time at Chelsea before joining Westerlo; and Bryce Moon, who was in the South African squad at the 2008 Cup of Nations and 2009 Confederations Cup. But Pienaar, spotted playing in the dusty streets of Westbury, is undoubtedly the most successful graduate of the academy.

"SAFA tasked us to go search for the players from poor backgrounds in order to prepare them for the professional contracts," Johnson said. "You found that some of them were skilful but disrupted with all the stuff happening around their homes. I won't lie to you, Pienaar wasn't the best player I discovered throughout my time at School of Excellence but in terms of the attitude and positive mindset, he really outclassed them all. He was not a very hard-working player but always got the job done anyway, no matter what. One of the best players when it comes to studying the match. He is a natural match-winner."

The School of Excellence took the players’ backgrounds into account and tried to give them an education that went beyond technical skills. “I sat down with him and talked about life challenges just to deploy a positive attitude in his head,” said Johnson. “But it was easy to relate to his story as I knew exactly about the place he was coming from. I gave him an opportunity to shine and he never let me down. From day one at training, you could see that he was focused and pushing to be a better footballer. I think he also knew that football or education was the only thing that could change his situation at home. Westbury is such a very hostile place to live – so unhealthy. But he made a choice to focus on football and he succeeded.” 

In 1999, two Cape Town clubs, Cape Town Spurs and Seven Stars, merged to form Ajax Cape Town, essentially a feeder club for the Amsterdam side. The Ikamva Centre (ikamva is the Xhosa word for future) was established in Parow, just outside Cape Town, to train players from all age groups but the main focus was on the development of young talent that could then be sent to the Netherlands. The former Ajax player Leo van Veen was named as coach to try to instil the club’s philosophy.

Ajax Cape Town sent scouts across the country, looking for potential that could be moulded at the Ikamva Centre. Pienaar had twice had trials with Ajax that had come to nothing, but in 2000 the scouts recommended him again. “I received a call from Ajax Amsterdam and they told us that there is a player with special talent by the name of Steven Pienaar,” said John Commits, one of the initial co-owners of Ajax Cape Town. “I went directly to the School of Excellence to look out for that player. I was shocked that he was quite capable. 

And at that stage, he was 18. From there I realised he was the future, then I engaged with the School of Excellence so that he could become our player. I also dealt with Denise and she said, ‘Okay, you have my blessing, take my boy down to Cape Town to start training.’ I managed to sort that quickly and he flew down to Cape Town with me and joined the rest of our first-team players. At the time, I remember that he was the highest-paid youth player in our youth structure, earning 2000 Rand [roughly £180 at the time] per month. 

“It was extremely expensive for us to maintain him since our club had just kicked off but it turned out to be a good investment. We brought him to train and I asked the coach, ‘Please let him train with the first team,’ and coach replied, ‘What are we going to do with an 18 year old?’. I said, ‘Look, do me a favour, keep this young starlet with the first team and you won't regret it.’

“Within two training sessions, our coach said, ‘Look, man, this guy can play. I'm going to keep in the first team.’ I was extremely excited about that. He played with us basically for a season and was in the starting line-up very quickly."

Pienaar was soon joined at Ajax Cape Town by Brent Carelse, who was a year older than him and had also grown up in Westbury before joining Hellenic. "If you speak about Steve, it’s like you’re talking about my brother,” said Carelse. “His home was not far from mine. Just like other kids, we both played football in the streets to avoid being involved in all the bad stuff that was happening from drug abuse and crime. It was tough in our area and we chose to focus on football. Steve had good attributes – he was skilful and really a good passer. Many recognise me as attacking midfielder without knowing that I started as a striker with him providing me with the ball to score." 

For Commits, what was most impressive was how Pienaar was able to settle 850 miles from home. "He had already been staying at the School of Excellence, which I think taught him discipline and got him used to living alone,” he said. “And as a kid he already knew how to look out for himself. Nothing fazed him once he moved to Cape Town. But you could still say that was very tough for him, you know? But he had a resilient sort of steel and a strong character, quiet and very disciplined. He had no issues off the pitch. And those are the things that added to him. He fitted in nicely."

In December 2000, Ajax Cape Town won the first trophy in their history. Pienaar scored and played exceptionally in a 1-1 draw against Orlando Pirates in the Rothmans Cup final and, although he missed the match, Ajax won the replay 4-1. That first game persuaded Ajax Amsterdam to take a serious look at him and after watching Pienaar in a league match they decided to bring him to the Netherlands.

“I remember it as though it was yesterday,” said Commits. “It was a very cold Wednesday night. We were still playing our home games at the Newlands Stadium and one of the Amsterdam technical directors came to watch the game to see how Pienaar was progressing. Remember, he came from scoring a cracker against Pirates. Then Pienaar produced some magic. He was up against the touchline on the halfway line. He had the ball at his feet and a player came charging towards him. Steven lifted his jersey pretending to wipe his face. Then he dribbled past the incoming player before going past another four players and scoring an incredible solo goal. The team of scouts sitting next to me said, ‘What an extraordinary talent.’ He was invited to Amsterdam and that was it.”

Pienaar made the move in summer 2001 and in February the following year he made his debut for Ajax Amsterdam, coming on at half-time in a game against NAC Breda. The European stage of his career, which would take him to Borussia Dortmund, Everton, Tottenham and Sunderland, had begun.