LEGEND has it that Steven Pienaar grew up watching football matches in which the referees would sometimes use a gun instead of a whistle.

Whether true or not, these tales - including the heart-wrenching experience of witnessing his best friend's violent death - encapsulates the Everton star's childhood growing up in the gang-ridden, drug-infested coloured township of Westbury on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

"What can I say about Westbury?" he mused in a recent interview with UK tabloid The Daily Mail. "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."

These days, thankfully, Westbury has mellowed, and twinkle-eyed youngsters no longer have to dodge tattooed and scarred gangsters to watch their favourite sports. On weekends, whether in a shebeen or on the couch in front of their televisions, the young and old vie for the best position to watch "Schillo" score against Manchester United, or "Stevie P" bamboozle a tribe of Chelsea and Arsenal defenders.

Pienaar, 28, has grown in stature from the callow 18-year-old who went to play soccer in the Netherlands that he is recognised by some of the best footballers in the world.

In the mixed zone after Bafana's semifinal match against Brazil during the Confederations Cup at Ellis Park last year, star striker Kaka broke off from an interview to congratulate the passing Pienaar on a great game.

Committed Christian Pienaar has soccer - and his strong, strict mother Denise - to thank for his growing fame. Spotted by coaches from the now-defunct Essellen Park School of Excellence, he was signed by Ajax Cape Town at the age of 17. In 2001, Netherlands giants Ajax Amsterdam came calling, and immediately signed him. Around the same time, Pienaar made his international debut for South Africa in a 2-0 win against Turkey. He has since accumulated 46 caps and scored two goals. He was also part of the 2002 World Cup squad and was a key player for Amaglu-glug (U-23 squad).

Pienaar spent five years in the Netherlands before signing with German giants Borussia Dortmund.

He moved to English Premiership club Everton in 2007 - first on loan and then permanently. His exploits for the Toffees have made him the subject of transfer talks - with British newspapers reporting that Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are all after his signature when his contract with Everton expires at the end of this season.

While his loyalty to SA might not have wavered, some things have changed. Pienaar told The Telegraph that as a result of his success overseas, his family had been able to move out of Westbury. "We bought a house in a suburb. A big house. A lovely big house."

He said of his strict, loving mother: "She just didn't like me to play on the streets because she was scared I'd get on to the bad stuff. Now she can see that sneaking out of the house was maybe not such a bad thing after all."

Watching Pienaar turn out for Bafana Bafana come June will definitely not be such a bad thing after all!