LONDON - Aaron Mokoena found it easy to handle the challenges thrown up by playing for troubled FA Cup finalists Portsmouth this season, after all he has overcome much bigger hurdles in his life.
Growing up in the grinding poverty of the Johannesburg townships before democracy finally reached South Africa, Mokoena used to kick a tennis ball around the dusty streets dreaming of one day becoming a famous footballer.
Little did he know that the skills he honed in Boipatong would set him on a road that would lead to him becoming his country's most capped player and the skipper of Bafana Bafana as South Africa prepares for the first World Cup on African soil.
Not only that, but on Saturday he will reach the pinnacle of his club career when Portsmouth face newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley when, like South Africa, they will be huge underdogs.
"It's funny. There are similarities with Portsmouth and South Africa. Nobody is expecting too much," Mokoena, who like many of the hard-up club's multi-national squad is up for sale, told Reuters at the club's training ground this week.
"But I love challenges. I believe that you can overcome anything. That's the kind of guy I am. I grew up with many challenges and I prefer not to complain, I just stay positive and hope I can spread that through my team mates."
On the pitch the tough-tackling Mokoena is nicknamed 'The Axe'. Off it he is charming and articulate, qualities that make him the ideal ambassador in his high-profile role as captain of the World Cup hosts.
When South African president Jacob Zuma visited England recently, Mokoena accompanied him to meet Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Zuma, who played football with Nelson Mandela while they were both imprisoned on Robben Island, had a special request for the 29-year-old defender.
"He just got straight to the point and he said to me that you have to make sure we win," Mokoena said.
Mokoena is passionate about the good that football brings to young Africans - and acknowledges that it helped him escape the daily hardships of the townships.
"I had a tough upbringing and grew up quickly," said Mokoena, who as an 11-year-old survived the horrors of the 1992 massacre in Boipatong which left dozens of people dead.
"Football allowed me to leave the country at a young age and experience new cultures and experience a different life. It provided me with a different education and made me mentally very strong and single-minded."
When he hangs up his boots Mokoena intends to enrol in law school and concentrate on his Foundation which aims to promote health and education through football in South Africa.
"I wanted to use the power of football to make a difference to the lives of young people in South Africa," he said. "The challenge will be to leave a lasting legacy from the World Cup."
Mokoena will lead South Africa out against Mexico on June 11 when all the years of planning for the World Cup will come to fruition. He said it will be the proudest moment of his life.
"All these years we've known it's coming and now it's so close we can touch it. The excitement is growing," he said.
"For me it will be a proud moment, a very special moment. I played in the 2002 World Cup finals. What an experience... but this, on home soil, it is beyond my dreams."
First, though there is there small matter of stopping the likes of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard in the Cup final in what could well be his last game for Portsmouth.
"It's been an interesting season," Mokoena said with a grin. "With the club going into administration and relegation, it's been tough but we can take positives from it.
"It showed me that the character in our dressing room is unbelievable. Chelsea are a huge team, a huge challenge. Do we fear them? They beat Wigan 8-0 last week who are a good team but I don't have fear. A little bit of anxiety maybe but that can give you the push you need."
Portsmouth's run to Wembley against the odds has provided an unexpected diversion for Mokoena and he believes that South Africa, ranked a lowly 90th in FIFA's rankings, can also be a surprise in Group A where they also meet France and Uruguay.
"Like at Portsmouth this season, it's about overcoming difficulties," said Mokoena, whose career in Europe began in Bayer Leverkusen's youth team and has included stays at Ajax, Genk and Blackburn Rovers.
"People have spoken to me about statistics, how low we are in the FIFA rankings. But the important thing is what happens on the field. We will be mentally and physically ready and the crowds will give us an extra player.
"As captain I'm leader but the players have made it so easy for me. I've been so fortunate to captain this side with the players that we have. I know they'll play with their hearts."comments