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Everton's transformation into serious top-four challengers continues apace, with the news that South Africa skipper Steven Pienaar has retired from international football – in a move that has a very Old Trafford look about it!
The Everton midfielder, 30, was not included in South Africa coach Gordon Igesund's 26-man squad for the forthcoming friendlies against Poland and Kenya after deciding to focus on his club career.
Announcing the news, Igesund told www.safa.net: "I am disappointed that Steven has retired from the national team.
"His presence and leadership is invaluable and could have helped us in our mission for 2013 African Cup of Nations and the World Cup qualification, but we must respect his decision. When I travel overseas to check on other players, I will try to have a word with him.
"The idea now is to build a team for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tournament and the one to qualify us for Brazil 2014."
Pienaar, who turned 30 in March, admitted the toil of international travel had helped persuade him to call time on his South Africa career.
"After having given more than 10 years' service to the national team I am now at a stage where physically I am struggling to balance the demands of playing in England with the number of games required by South Africa," he said.
"I am proud to have represented and captained my country.
"There is a lot of very good young talent coming through and perhaps it is time for them to be given an opportunity.
"I wish the coaching staff and the players all the very best for the future."
The decision is a boost for Toffees manager David Moyes, although he had no influence in persuading the midfielder to quit.
"We had no input into Steven Pienaar's decision to retire from international football," he told evertonfc.com.
"I have never discouraged any player from playing for his national team, in fact I encourage it.
"Steven has made his own decision and we support him in whatever he chooses to do."
Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar announced his retirement from international football.
The news comes as a major blow for South Africa who are hosting the upcoming African Nations Cup and are already struggling with a list of long-term injuries to key players.
'It is with regret that I wish to advise you that with immediate effect I'm no longer available for selection to represent South Africa,' Pienaar said in a letter read out at a media conference in Johannesburg, where South Africa announced their squad to play Poland and Kenya in friendly internationals this month.
'After having given more than 10 years service to the national team I'm now at a stage where physically I'm struggling to balance the demands of playing in England with the number of games required by the national team.
'I'm proud to have represented and captained my country, for this I sincerely thank you and wish the team all the best in the future," the 30-year-old Everton midfielder added.
New Bafana coach Gordon Igesund said he only heard of Pienaar's decision to retire on Monday.
'He's given us 10 years of service and his body is tired,' said Igesund. 'Yesterday was the first time I found out he wanted to retire.'
PAOK Salonika defender Bongani Khumalo will take over as captain. Slovakia-based Ricardo Nunes, who plays for MSK Zilina, was the only new name to the squad.
ORDINARILY, the sight of an Everton FC player flanked by police would give David Moyes palpitations.
The Blues boss can relax, however, for as Tim Howard is ushered into the Stockbridge Village Neighbourhood Centre, it is not to place a spanner in the works of Everton’s brilliant start to the Premier League season, it is merely to add his support to the club’s award-winning community work.
Howard is in L28, along with Liverpool’s Stewart Downing and Stephen Sama, to support ‘Kickz’, an initiative run between Everton In The Community, The Liverpool FC Foundation and Merseyside Police, which runs football sessions in areas with high incidents of crime and anti-social behaviour.
The scheme, which targets areas such as Stockbridge Village, Norris Green, Anfield and Breckfield, has already proven a huge success. Merseyside Police estimate the programme has contributed to a 79% reduction in crime in the targeted areas.
“As players, it is important to support community events such as this,” says Howard.
“It is important that these children are inspired to stay off the streets and look to really positive things.
“Community is what is important. You can go to Anfield or Goodison and the lights go out, the wins and losses come and go, but the future of the community is more important.
“Everton is a club that cares. It has won awards for its community work, and it can only do that through consistency and through passion.
“It is something we as a club take pride in, the manager and the players feel like it is something we need to be involved in.”
“Growing up in New Jersey, we had a few different things and projects, but not enough. The more we can get the better, because there are a lot of needs that need to be met.
“Some kids gravitate towards certain events and things, and all of those are important. The more events and schemes like this we can have, the better.”
Howard, as ever, is in good spirits as he watches a group of local youngsters perform a dance routine, and then take part in a light coaching session, hosted by the USA international.
It is little wonder. Everton’s start to the season has been good enough to see them into second in the Premier League table with six games played. The football they have been playing has had their manager, a hardened realist, purring.
“He’s in a very good mood.....at the moment!” laughs Howard. “We as players are usually in a better mood than the manager, but everyone is happy at the moment.
“As players, we get the enjoyable job. We get out there on the training ground to have fun, and to focus and look towards the next game. The manager has a tough task trying to regroup us always. He has to bring us down off a high or to bring us back up after a low.
“But right now the mood is really good. It's always pretty good, if I am honest, but right now we just feel like we are in a good rhythm with our performances, and that makes for a good few days of training between matches.”
For Howard, a good mood in October is something of a rarity. Everton’s tradition in recent seasons has been to struggle through the opening months before coming on strong after the Christmas period. They have finished each of the last four campaigns as one of the league’s form sides.
This season, though, feels different. Everton are playing with the kind of attacking freedom seldom, if ever, seen during Moyes’ ten-year reign. With Wigan and QPR to come in their next two fixtures, the hope is that their start can be sustained for some time still.
“I think it (the start to the season) is down to the quality of players that the manager has brought in over the last six months or so,” says Howard. “We now have a bunch of players who are comfortable on the ball, who can take the ball and be match winners. That is something all the top teams have, and we have got a few of them on our team.
“It is important to have the likes of (Nikica) Jelavic and (Steven) Pienaar and (Marouane) Fellaini. Kevin Mirallas has come in, too, and sparkled on the wing, so we have a lot of those kind of players, and that is great for us as a team.”
He adds: “Now that we have had a pretty decent start to the season, hopefully we can do this every year because if not it can be miserable.
“You work so hard in pre-season, look forward to the games and then you can't pick up points and you're wondering where the first win is coming from. That's miserable, having to go in every day and pick yourself up.
“But like I say, we are in a good rhythm at the moment, we are performing well. You don't always get results when you perform well, but more often than not you pick up points when you need to, and that can only be a positive thing.”
Positive indeed. But just how far can this new, improved Everton go this season? Is Champions League qualification a realistic target?
“I think it is,” Howard says. “But we know it is going to be a hard ask as well.
“But having said that, in order for us to do great things, we have to punch above our weight. We are not a huge squad, and we don't have boatloads of money like other clubs, so in order for us to get the job done we have to stay really consistent for quite a few months.
“Is it achievable? Of course it is. We did it a few years back under the manager, though I arrived at the club shortly after that, and this is the best, most talented squad we have had since then for sure.
“We just have to make sure we stay on the grind, keep hunting for those points and pick them up everywhere we can.”
TIM HOWARD hopes Steven Pienaar’s retirement from international football can benefit Everton FC in the long term – and says he can fully understand his team-mate’s decision.
Pienaar announced yesterday that he would no longer be available for selection for South Africa, citing the dual demands of club and international football as the major factor behind his decision. The 30-year-old has collected 57 caps since making his debut for Bafana-Bafana in 2002, and represented his country in two World Cups. He was the current national team captain under Gordon Igesund.
And Howard, himself an international veteran, says he can sympathise with Pienaar’s situation.
“I don’t believe in some of these people who say they will never retire from playing for their country,” said the goalkeeper, who has himself earned 81 caps for the USA. “Each individual is different. Everyone has their own reasons for doing things, and it can be difficult sometimes.
“Everyone has a responsibility to their country, but also to their clubs. Steven has had a very good international career, and I’m sure it won’t have been an easy decision for him.
“There is a lot on our shoulders, and you have to make those decisions sometimes. It is certainly not easy, particularly knowing the way Steven is thought of in South Africa. That must have been really difficult.
“But we have to make these decisions. I’d say Steven’s form (for Everton) could improve as a result, but it can’t get any better can it?! He has been brilliant every time he has stepped on to the field for Everton, stretching back many years.
“But hopefully now (his retirement) will help him stay fit, get fresher and give even more for the club.”
Pienaar himself issued a statement that said: “I’m proud to have played for and captained my country. For that I thank you.
“After having given more than 10 years’ service to the national team, I am now at a stage where physically I am struggling to balance the demands of playing in England with the number of games required by South Africa.
“There is a lot of very good young talent coming through and perhaps it is time for them to be given an opportunity. I wish the coaching staff and the players all the very best for the future.”
Everton boss David Moyes insisted the club had no input in the in-form midfielder’s decision, though Pienaar’s retirement will directly benefit the Blues this season.
The Toffees will not lose the former Tottenham man to the Africa Cup of Nations, which takes place in South Africa in January, and could have led to Pienaar being missing for up to six weeks.
Moyes said: “I have never discouraged any player from playing for his national team. In fact I encourage it. Steven has made his own decision and we support him.”