It's been quite a season for Aaron Makoena; he's battled relegation with Portsmouth, come within grasping distance of winning the FA Cup and now he's captaining hosts South Africa at the World Cup. The Bafana Bafana as the team are known (it's Nguni for 'Our Boys') aren't expected to progress any further than the group stages but Mokoena knows a thing or two about survival. One of seven siblings, Mokoena lost his father when he was just seven years old. As an 11 year old his mother was forced to dress him as a girl to save him from a massacre by Inkatha party members who wanted to purge his township of Boipatong of its next generation of men. This terrible start in life has moulded him into a battler. Nicknamed 'the Axe' because of his tough tackling, he became South Africa's youngest player at 18 and has now earned 100 caps for the national side - more than any other player. His side may be expected to roll over for Mexico in the opening game of the tournament but judging by his past Makoena won't go down without a fight.
How did you feel when you first heard that South Africa had been awarded the World Cup?
It was incredible. I was watching the announcement on TV and I felt overwhelmed by the moment. Of course we knew we had a chance because we had missed out by just one vote on the last World Cup.
What does it mean to South Africa the nation?
It means a lot. We have an opportunity to showcase the beauty of or country, the warmth of South African people. It’s going to improve the economy and improve job opportunities.
As you are captain of South Africa, did Nelson Mandela have any words of advice for you?
After the World Cup was announced South Africa hosted the Confederations Cup here and before the kick off we went to visit Mr Mandela and he had a chat with me. He told me how much this World Cup means to South Africa and that we should really go out and express ourselves as South Africans and enjoy it. It’s now our moment. We’ve been through apartheid and now it’s our chance to show the world what South Africa is all about. It was incredibly motivating to hear that from the big man himself.
This will be the first time an African country has hosted the World Cup. This must feel long overdue?
It’s better now than never. At least now Africa has shown it has the talent. Most big teams throughout the World have an African player so now the continent has a chance to showcase these players.
Can an African team win this World Cup?
I hope so. We have countries that can now compete with the best in the world plus we have the advantage of playing on our home continent.
Had South Africa not been hosting the tournament the Bafana wouldn’t actually have qualified, so how do you rate your team’s chances of actually getting out of the group stage?
We have a tough group with experienced countries [France, Mexico and Uruguay] so we know it’s going to be difficult to go through. We have to prepare well physically and mentally and take advantage of our twelfth man – the South African fans.
As I know that English people love beer, Castle Lager is the way forward.
Your nickname is ‘The Axe’ – so are you looking forward to chopping down Thierry Henry?
[Laughs] I’m looking forward to playing Thierry Henry but France have got so many top players, I cannot just focus on him.
Your opening game is being played in Soccer City in your home city of Johannesburg. What will that be like for you?
Soccer City is a world class stadium and to play there in the opening game against Mexico will be unbelievable for me and for the fans. Just the shape of it is incredible.
Having played in the Premier League for five years you’ll know the English players by now – so how do you think England will do at the World Cup?
I’m a big fan of England and hope they do well. They have big players and a very experienced manager – and they showed that in the manner with which they qualified. I thought Capello did well to introduce some discipline into the team. I’ve chatted to David James and Steven Gerrard about the World Cup and they’re both really looking forward to coming to South Africa.
What can those fans looking to come over to South Africa this summer look forward to?
Like in England, South Africans are very passionate about football as it’s the number one sport. England fans will love it – they just need to switch off from the negative stuff that the media is writing and just experience it from themselves.
Are you a fan of the vuvuzela [the incredibly loud horn blown by some South African football fans]? Some people have argued that it should be banned from the World Cup?
The vuvuzelas are the way to support football in South Africa. They’re quite difficult for outsiders to appreciate because they’re a bit noisy but for me and the team, we love them. The vuvuzela keeps me going so it was nice that FIFA didn’t ban them.
England fans will be watching their games in Rustenburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. What can you tell us about those host cities?
Rustenburg has beautiful weather. It’s never as cold as Cape Town and P.E. and is a bit more humid. There’s loads of safari if you’re looking for something other than football to see. If you like the beach then Port Elizabeth is a great place to visit although in June and July it could be quite chilly. In Cape Town you can go wine tasting and also go to see Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life.
OK finally Aaron, can you recommend a little local refreshment for fans going to the World Cup?
As I know that English people love beer, Castle Lager is the way forward. For food I recommend boerowors which is a South African sausage with thick porridge and gravy on it. I tell you what; with a beer that goes down very well! You’ve got to try it.