AARON MOKOENA faces the two greatest challenges of his life over the next 44 days – under orders from the President himself to lift the World Cup in Johannesburg on July 11.
Relegated Portsmouth face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 15 then his beloved South Africa prepare for the World Cup kick-off on home soil on June 11. Only a madman would back the man known as “The Axe” to escape the chop from President Jacob Zuma.
But then this is a man who lived through the downfall of Apartheid, who had to dress as a girl to escape a massacre and perhaps most remarkably of all, inspired Pompey to victory over in-form Spurs in a dramatic FA Cup semi-final upset last month.
Mokoena, raised with a tennis ball at his feet in the dusty streets of the Boipatong township near Johannesburg, is spending any spare time during the most exciting weeks of his life promoting charities and leading campaigns against gun crime. “Mbazo” (literally “The Axe”), is “giving something back”.
Last month, when his amiable, outspoken President Jacob Zuma came over on a state visit, Mokoena (above, left, at Downing Street with his President) cracked an invite with him to Buckingham Palace. He recalls: "The president called me over to the Queen and he said to her: 'You've got to know this man - he is the one who will make sure that South Africa wins the World Cup. He is the captain of the country.'
Was Elizabeth II fazed? Mokoena grins: “Well, the thing is she is well-informed. She obviously knew that the finals were in South Africa and she also knew who I was!”
Perhaps more intimidating than telling England’s sovereign how he intends to tame her Three Lions, is the message from The President himself. Mokoena adds: "President Zuma and I had a discussion. He just got straight to the point and he said to me ‘You have to make sure we win’. He loves football so much. I didn't know but he's a Liverpool fan and he used to play football himself.
“He used to be a captain of a team in the prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. But that's exactly what he said to me: 'You've got to make sure that the country wins.'"
Such pressure means little to Mokoena after his formative experiences as a boy in the Boipatong township near Vanderbijlpark, about 50 miles from downtown Johannesburg.
In June 1992, before democracy dawned in the Rainbow Nation, 40 people were massacred in a political attack – backed by police - which saw pregnant women and children murdered on the streets.
Mokoena told The Guardian: "The people were murdered at night. It was awful. We were crying. But then we were told they would come back to kill all the young boys.
“So my mum had to protect me. She dressed me as a girl and we went to the community hall where there was enough protection for people from the township, especially the boys.
"It wasn't an easy upbringing. It was a township and in townships anything is possible. My brothers and sisters really experienced Apartheid while crime-wise it was absolutely bad but I always had the support and protection of my family."
Mokoena also had his studies. "I was an academic boy. I was into mathematics and I loved science. I wanted to study further but, because of football, I couldn't do what I wanted to do."
For that reason he backs the 1GOAL initiative, which aims to get all children into school. He makes the point: "We are talking about 72 million kids worldwide who don't get the chance. Apartheid jeopardised the opportunity for kids in South Africa to be educated. The President and I are trying to change that. It is one thing he wants to leave as his legacy."
Mokoena learnt his trade under the great Jomo Sono with Cosmos in Johannesburg before travelling 5,000 miles to join Bayer Leverkusen and then Ajax in 1999.
After a couple of seasons on loan with Belgian club Germinal Beerschot in Antwerp, he moved to Genk. He played seven games in Holland and around 70 in Belgian before his big break in 2005. A £500,000 move saw the Axe land at Ewood Park, where he joined compatriot Benni McCarthy under Mark Hughes.
After 101 games as something of a cult figure in Lancashire, Mokoena headed for the deep south and Portsmouth last year, where he has earned similar devotion with 29 games in a difficult season at Fratton Park.
The youngest ever South African international – he was capped against Botswana in February 2009 at the tender age of 18 years and 87 days – he has succeeded former Leeds great Lucas Radebe as the Bafana Bafana skipper and at 28, he is South Africa’s most capped player with 99 so far.
Forced to miss Carlos Alberto Parreira’s pre-World Cup tours to Brazil and Germany this month by the demands of Portsmouth’s doomed Premier League campaign, the 100th cap remains on the horizon.
South Africa’s task in June is nearly as daunting as Portsmouth’s this month. The lowest ranked World Cup hosts in history – they are currently 88th in the FIFA list – South Africa kick off the first African World Cup at Soccer City on June 11 againt Mexico, with France and Uruguay to follow.
Unlikely or not, success at the World Cup after the big Wembley day out remains Mokoena’s amibition. Remember, his late, late extra-time winner in the third-round replay at Coventry kicked off the fairy-tale cup run for the Premier League’s bottom club. And his was inspired in the semi-final shocker against Tottenham.
He said: "It's been a fantastic run for us and especially lately, because we know that it's the only thing we had after our points deduction and relegation.
"We need the FA Cup more than anything and there's absolutely a parallel between Portsmouth and South Africa. It's exactly the same. We need the FA Cup more than anything and South Africa need this World Cup more than anything. Hopefully, we can do as well in the World Cup as we have done at Portsmouth in the FA Cup.”
Speaking yesterday to launch a campaign against gun crime, he added: “The debt at Portsmouth? It’s embarrassing. It shows how bad it was. Up and coming players have been involved in this. It’s not good for the game.
“But the Pompey fans kept on going. They are passionate supporters. Every game we played, we were aware of them, the money they pay to watch us play. We rose to that.
“At the moment, we have to sell players to make money. I have a meeting before I can talk about my future at the club.
"I must say it's been tough. But in the semi-final against Tottenham, we showed what character we have. I'm sure a lot of people elsewhere wouldn't have coped with the situation that we've had. The important thing is that there is nothing impossible in life. Do you want to take the easy way out or do you really want to fight it through?"
But of course, as his President might say, the FA Cup final is just a warm up for the real thing. The big thing. Mokoena insists: "We saw what happened at the 2002 finals with South Korea and it can definitely be the same story with us.
"We experienced it last summer when we had the Confederations Cup in South Africa (they reached the semi-finals while Spain and Italy went home early) and I am sure that the atmosphere will be even hotter at the World Cup. People are so over the moon to have the World Cup and we are going to show how much it means to us. The Confederations Cup was a good rehearsal and it's absolutely possible that we can do well at the World Cup.
"I think it's good to be underdogs. I said before the Confederations Cup not to write South Africa off and we surprised people then. I'm going to say exactly the same thing again. Don't write off Bafana Bafana before we've even kicked a ball."