Mokoena: We have big expectations
After a tumultuous season with Portsmouth, South African captain Aaron Mokoena is putting his club future on hold to focus on reaching the World Cup quarter-finals.
Mokoena recalls how the stark realisation that it was the end of an era at Pompey hit the players as they sat slumped in the dressing room after the FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea. But thankfully for the Bafana Bafana captain, he was one of the players whose attention was swiftly diverted to other matters - within five hours of the final whistle he was on a Johannesburg-bound plane and preparing to report for World Cup duty the following morning. May 15 was a snapshot of Mokoena's year - fast and furious while running the gamut of emotions.
Last August, he signed for a Portsmouth team that was still riding high on the back of the previous season's UEFA Cup entry. But a skeleton in the form of a £130 million debt was discovered in the Fratton Park closet and the rest, though fortunately not the club, is history.
"It was mixed feelings because we realised the fact that a lot players will be moving on," Mokoena said of the scene after losing 1-0 to Chelsea. "We have a fantastic fanbase in Portsmouth and the fact we have to move on and build another life elsewhere - coming to terms with that was the difficult part.
"The season was a rollercoaster for the club but I will always take the positives out it. The players showed pride, we showed that we are pro footballers and the most important thing was that we did it for the fans because they kept us going, as did the manager. Next season, I would love to stay in England. There's been a few clubs show interest but I just didn't want to decide yet. I want to focus on this big event and then I'll decide after the tournament."
Mokoena is as aware of the enormity of Bafana Bafana's task as he is privileged to be leading his nation out at Soccer City on June 11, with billions worldwide watching. His eyes are those of proud man, one that is completely focused and quietly confident, as he prepares to become only the 19th player to captain the host nation, dating back to Uruguay's Jose Nasazzi in 1930.
"It's been a pleasure all along to wear the national colours of South Africa. They love their football and they love to see their national team doing well," Mokoena said ahead of his country's third World Cup appearance. "The excitement is there and the expectations are really high here at home. But to be fair the players have big expectations too. We know it's a big task and we have a mountain to climb, but we've made a lot of sacrifices and put a lot of hard work in.
"We have to take it step by step. The most important thing is to do well in the group stage and progress to the quarter-finals then see what happens. But like a child, we have to start crawling before walking and we know first of all that we need to prepare ourselves mentally and physically and move on from there. We want to make the country proud - that's our ambition and our goal."
Monday's 5-0 win over Guatemala was the South Africa's 11th consecutive game without defeat, an impressive run for a team that was only recently floundering. Failure to qualify for the African Nations Cup, in hindsight, might prove to be a blessing. For one, it reopened the door for Carlos Alberto Parreira to replace the unsuccessful - and hugely unpopular - Joel Santana.
And although the official games in Angola would have helped South Africa, it means that Parreira has overseen an almost secretive World Cup preparation, while their African cousins Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon were being scouted by their respective opponents.
That, along with the lack of any qualification games and the fact that the team has taken on a whole new dimension since last year's Confederations Cup, gives Bafana Bafana something of an X factor against Group A rivals France, Mexico and Uruguay.
Parreira, it must be said, was not a unanimous choice in South Africa. Many thought a home-grown coach should be given the chance to lead the country in a home World Cup. But Mokoena, who became the first South African player to win 100 caps on Monday, hailed the impact of Brazil's 1994 World Cup-winning coach since taking charge in October last year.
"The players have grown because he knows what he wants and knows what he wants to implement and he is aware of the expectations and what the country wants to achieve," Mokoena said. "We've played quite a few friendly games now and we've done extremely well, which shows that we're moving in the right direction.
"Experience counts at this level and it certainly helps to have someone like Carlos in charge. But it's a give and take situation. We need to help him to help us, but I have no doubt his experience will play a role. I think we will also have a big advantage playing at home in front of our home crowd because they will be player number 12. I really do believe that."
And while the continent is anticipating a first ever semi-final placing from one of its teams, Mokoena revealed that one player not participating in the finals - African superstar and Ghana talisman Michael Essien - knew in late April that his World Cup was over.
"I had a chat with him two weeks before the end of the season and he told me he wasn't feeling well and didn't think he would be fit for the tournament," Mokoena said. "It's sad because you need the best players in the tournament and it would have been nice to have him there."