What are your hopes for the World Cup? The most important thing is that we play well. The side has always been a mix of local players and those in Europe. The level is different, but you do your best and work as a team. We try and raise their game because if we don’t play as a team we’re nothing. In terms of our style, we’re like a South American team: we pass the ball around on the floor and don’t play long balls. We have a lot of flair and we have to utilise that.
Secondly, we want to qualify from our group stage and not be the first host nation not to get past the group stages. Anything can happen once you get past the first stage – look at South Korea in 2002. If we get through then the whole country will be lifted and there are millions of passionate football fans in South Africa. Some wins and a bit of confidence can carry us a long way.
A year ago, the team’s form was poor. What was the problem? We were playing top teams, the type we’d expect to meet in the finals, and that was good for us. In a run of four games, we played Germany, Serbia, Spain and Brazil which was great for our development. It wasn’t easy when we kept losing games but we were playing some nice football and results have improved since.Our media were hard on us, but they should look at the history. France didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup yet they won the competition when they hosted it four years later.
Tell us about your role in the side... I’m a combination player. I can dribble and pass and I think I’m someone who managers want to get on the ball and make the team play. I had a lot of criticism when I’d just broken into the national team in 2002. The media said that I played well for my club, but not my country. I was young and given a huge amount of responsibility because I played in Europe. I found that difficult.
Now, I’m one of the most experienced players. I’m happier playing for my country and feel better equipped to help people around me, to motivate them. I’m supposed to be a leader in the team and ?I feel like a leader. I talk a lot on the field and play with confidence to lift those around me.
Where do you think you’re at your best? I prefer to play in the centre – that’s my favourite position. Before I played my first game for Everton, the gaffer said to me: “I’d like you to play central, but do you mind playing out wide?” I just wanted to play. I developed as a player in five years at Ajax, where they stress importance of playing in different positions. I played the Ajax way with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart. I learned a lot there – how to work the ball through little triangles of passing.
Who are South Africa’s other key players? The spine of the team is the most important – the goalkeeper, centre-back, central midfielders and forwards. Without a good spine, we’ll fall apart. The striker Bernard Parker is only 23, but he’s just signed for FC Twente in Holland after playing with Red Star Belgrade. He scored both of our goals when we beat New Zealand 2-0 in the Confederations Cup. The midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi has signed for Fulham. He could be a surprise and now he’s training with top level players he’s really improving. Aaron Mokoena is the captain and has a huge amount of experience – more than 90 internationals. Players look up to him and he brings a lot of positive energy.
But one player missing is Benni McCarthy… Yes, we miss him [McCarthy was omitted from the national squad amid rumours that he was entertaining women in the team hotel]. Opponents see him in the line-up and it unnerves them and takes pressure off us. He’s a quality player with a great goalscoring record. But we have Bernard Parker and Mphela, who came off the bench and scored two goals against Spain in the Confederations Cup third place play-off.
Interview: June 2010.