mbazo a fighter

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 the 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 last Saturday he reached the pinnacle of his club career when Portsmouth faced newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley being, like South Africa, serious 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 Portsmouth's multinational squad is up for sale, told Reuters before the game.

"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 teammates."

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 Bafana Bafana.

Mokoena will lead South Africa 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.

"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." Portsmouth's run to the FA Cup final against the odds provided an unexpected diversion for Mokoena and he believes that South Africa, ranked a lowly 90th by Fifa, will be a surprise in Group A where they also meet France and Uruguay.

"Like at Portsmouth this season, it's about overcoming difficulties," Mokoena said.

"People have spoken to me about statistics, how low we are on the Fifa rankings. But the important thing is what happens on the field." - Reuters