Steven Pienaar beams with pride at the greatest sporting show on earth heading for South Africa this summer and is confident it will put even more distance between his home country and the bad days of poverty and prejudice. When he thinks back to how things used to be, he might just offer up a prayer to make sure.
The Everton midfielder is a committed Christian but had his faith tested by some of his childhood experiences in Westbury, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that was described by a local media outlet, as recently as five years ago, as 'a death zone where the Devil is busy'.
Dark forces were even busier a decade or so earlier, when the last throes of apartheid combined with widespread lawlessness to leave black youngsters like Pienaar in daily peril.
Football provided a way out as he came to Ajax's attention and began building a reputation that reached Everton manager David Moyes's radar two-and-a-half years ago, but only after the crack of gunfire became so commonplace he did not even feel safe within the walls of his own home.
'What can I say about Westbury?' he mused, shaking his head. 'There were some rough areas in and around Johannesburg, but it had to be one of the roughest. It is hard to describe just how bad it was, because gang violence, drug dealing and shootings were everywhere.
'One thing that sticks in my mind is watching television sitting on the floor. We had a couch, but I wasn't allowed on it, because 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.
'It has 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.
'My mum always used to say to me, 'Stay away from trouble, if you can, son'. It was easier said than done, though. Soon after I joined Ajax, I lost a close friend to the violence back in Westbury. It is too personal and upsetting to talk about, but it just underlined how the threat was always there.
'Apartheid was still around as well. My mum used to tell me how she wasn't allowed to use the same public toilets as white people or step on the same beach. If she strayed into the wrong suburb, people would ask what she thought she was doing there, or, more likely, abuse her.
'I had some experience of it myself, because I can remember going to some shops with friends and being shot at with daisy guns. They fired small ballbearings, 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.
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'That is why 1994 was so momentous. Nelson Mandela, a black man, president of South Africa. Did I watch it on television? No, I was out on the street, like everyone else, singing and dancing. It was a carnival. We were becoming a free country at last.'
Next week is 20 years since Mandela's release and the birth of a new South Africa.
The fatal shootings in a terrorist attack on the Togo team bus prior to the Africa Cup of Nations have heightened security fears for this summer's World Cup finals. Speaking as a proud African, as much as an ambassador for his country's bid to be hosts, Pienaar is convinced the tournament will bring people together and prove a building block towards prosperity and harmony.
'I won't try to paint a rosy picture, because there is still poverty and there is still crime,' he said. 'You may see a bag go missing from a hotel room, but I don't think there will be real trouble. The government and people who brought the World Cup to South Africa are working really hard to address that issue. They don't want the country's name dragged through the mud and I don't think it will be.
'What happened in Angola was terrible, but there is a lot of struggle going on throughout Africa. People are fighting for their freedom. That is how they see it. But this is a worldwide event. The world is coming to South Africa, and there is a cry throughout the continent for the guns to be put down. For a few weeks, at least, I think people will forget their problems, forget the civil wars and have a smile on their face.
'Sport can be that powerful. No-one in South Africa will forget Nelson Mandela striding on to the pitch wearing a Springbok jersey at the end of the rugby World Cup final and congratulating the captain Francois Pienaar. It was a special, spontaneous moment, and when the television camera panned round the crowd, you could see the pride, passion and sheer excitement in the eyes of so many people.
'It has given us a lot to live up to this summer, but I know the tournament will capture the public imagination in the same way. I knew that from the moment we were awarded the finals.
'I was on holiday in the Dominican Republic and switched on the CNN news one morning. It was in Spanish, and I didn't understand, but the scenes were enough. It was back home, and people were jumping for joy. I knew we had got it.'
Nothing shakes Pienaar's religious beliefs, not gentle ribbing from his team-mates over the 'God is Great' vest he wears under his Everton shirt or a failed claim for £850,000 damages from the mother of his one-year old daughter over an alleged broken promise that they would marry.
'God is great': One of the religious T-shirts Pienaar wears under his Everton top
'My mum is a very committed Christian and was always on my case,' hesmiled. 'No-one can force you to believe, though. I just listened atchurch, and everything made sense. I wear the vest because God truly isgreat. He is on high. I believe He is with me and the angels areguiding me on the pitch, and it is a way of acknowledging that.
'Thereis mickey-taking, inevitably. We lost the other week, and Phil Nevillesaid to me, 'Was God great today, Steven?' I don't let it bother me,though. It goes in one ear and out the other.
'My faith is reallystrong and helps me in difficult times, like when my little girlSkyla's mother started making up these stories about me after we brokeup. If people wanted to believe them, fine. I kept quiet, because itwas someone looking for attention, and I was not going to get drawninto her games.
'It is difficult, because every time I go back toSouth Africa, I have to contact my lawyer and make an arrangement tosee Skyla. I make sure that happens, because my time with her isprecious. I just have to be patient and wait, because I know one dayshe will be with me.'
By the time he links up with the SouthAfrica squad, he hopes to be back on speaking terms with his brotherKelvin after his brilliant solo goal at The Emirates caused a familyrift. The run from the halfway line and impudent chip over theonrushing Manuel Almunia brought him widespread acclaim but receivedmixed reviews in the Pienaar household.
'Kelvin hasn't spoken to me since,' he said. 'He's a massive Arsenal fan, as are most of my friends from schooldays.
'I actually played for a team called Westbury Arsenal when I was a kid. Most of the family were really pleased for me when I scored, and I was thrilled with the goal, but Kelvin hasn't been in touch once. He's back in South Africa now, so I am going to have to try to make it up to him.'
The garish boots Pienaar wears are almost as eye-catching as the match-winning flair, but he is at pains to put people right about the image they create.
'They look flash, but my sponsors, adidas, are to blame for that. They give me the boots and I have to wear them, whether they are lime green, yellow or pink. I'm not embarrassed wearing them, but I don't feel comfortable being in the limelight.' Worryingly for Everton, Pienaar heads for the World Cup with just 12 months left on his contract and an open mind on what happens next.
'There are always rumours, and Bayern Munich keep being mentioned, but I am not aware of anything happening,' he said. 'There have been talks about a new deal at Everton, but that seems to have gone quiet.
'It was always a dream to play in the Premier League, and my focus is fully on getting us to where we want to be this season. But I am an adventurous person. I am always looking to learn new things, and if there was an opportunity to return to Holland or Germany, or try a new country like Russia, I would look at it.
'Chances to experience different people and a new culture don't always come along more than once in a lifetime, and I would consider it, just as I would consider staying with Everton.'
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