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From Rostov To Leeds 16/10/03
For any young South African footballer, the dream is to play for one of the European giants of the game and to star alongside the likes of Ronaldo, David Beckham and Alessandro del Piero. Most never reach that goal, but for the chosen few, the rewards are endless. Some, on the other hand, are just happy with a bottle of Vodka and a sack of potatoes....

Flights to Russia these days must be cheap because the number of South African footballers who are making their way to the former Soviet state is truly remarkable. The reasons for this mini-invasion of a most unfashionable outpost is, as in most things in life, centred around fiscal considerations.

For a Russian club to purchase a South African player, even with their Rubles, marks a sound, inexpensive investment, and although this is true of just about every country in Europe, there seems to be an almost insane clamour to head for the chilly climes of Moscow, St Petersburg, or, indeed, the little-known town of Rostov, reputed to be the Mafia capital of the region. 

In fact, Rostov's local First Division club has no less than five South Africans on their books, all of whom would be highly sought-after commodities in our local Castle Premiership competition.

And just why Matthew Booth, Japhet Zwane, Tony Coyle, Bennett Mnguni and Rowan Hendricks would give up the sunshine of the Rainbow Nation for Russia may seem odd to some, but it is also about getting your foot in the door.

While this quintet may not represent the group of South African footballers abroad who feel they have made it into the big time, they now at least have a better chance of being snapped up by a European powerhouse.

It is all about putting yourself in the shop window.

Indeed, Mnguni scored a fabulous goal for his former club Lokomotiv Moscow at the Bernabeu Stadium against Real Madrid in a Champions League game last season. But the fact that he has been forced to take a step down this year just goes to show the level of consistency needed from a player to get to the top of his game.

Make no mistake, football is a cut-throat business and no-one is going to hand you any favours on the way up.

But then there are those who have made it, play in the best leagues in Europe, against top opposition week in, week out, and for whom we should be full of praise.

Perhaps the most promising of these is 21-year-old Steven Pienaar, a midfielder with Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam. Pienaar found his way over to Holland via the club's relationship with Ajax Cape Town, who act as a feeder system for their European counterparts.

Exceptionally gifted, Pienaar came through the same youth development program in Amsterdam that produced such greats as Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert and twin brothers Ronald and Frank de Boer, to name but a few.

Despite limited appearances for Bafana Bafana, local football fans have had ample chance to see Pienaar in action on TV as he created havoc for opponents in the Champions League last season, specifically against Arsenal at Highbury when he made World Cup winners Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva look like Sunday League lay-abouts.

Another who has excelled on the Champions League stage in recent times is former Orlando Pirates star Sibusiso Zuma, who, it seems, just cannot stop scoring. The striker currently plays for FC Copenhagen and was voted Player of the Season in Denmark last year.

The 28-year-old has attracted plenty of interest from larger clubs on the continent, not least AC Milan and Lazio of Italy, but up to know he has opted to remain in Copenhagen.

South African football's enfant terrible, Benni McCarthy, has recently completed a move to FC Porto in Portugal after a couple of seasons on the sidelines at Celta Vigo in Spain's Primera Liga.

McCarthy is something of an enigma to most, a highly talented individual who, for one reason or another, seems to fall out with authority figures with whom he comes in contact. In and out of favour with national coach Shakes Mashaba, McCarthy's dream of a move to the English Premiership has never materialised, despite interest from Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and former top-flight side Sunderland.

And speaking of the Premiership, there are currently four South Africans who earn their pay in pounds.

The newest recruit to this select gang is defender Mbulelo 'Old-John' Mabizela, who recently signed for north London club Tottenham Hotspur. The 22-year-old Bafana Bafana captain was the hottest property in South African football while he was at Orlando Pirates and he joins a club with a rich tradition, if one with a mediocre recent record.

Charlton Athletic have two South Africans on their books in the form of Shaun Bartlett and Mark Fish. Bartlett made his name as a striker in Switzerland at FC Zurich, before moving to England two season's ago. He made a superb initial impact, so much so that his volleyed strike against Leicester City towards the end of the 2001/02 campaign was voted Goal of the Season.

Fish's story is a more depressing one for local fans. Discovered by Jomo Sono as a raw teenager, Fish made his international debut as an 18-year-old a decade ago. A big-money move to Lazio in Serie A followed, before he was taken to England by Bolton Wanderers.

With a lavish English lifestyle and a model wife by his side, Fish has decided that representing his country is just not worth the effort any more. A 0-0 draw against then World Champions France in October 2000 marked the end of his international career, at the tender age of just 26.

But, saving the best for last, the final of our Premiership quartet is none other than Leeds United defender Lucas Radebe, who not only became the first South African to captain a top-flight team in England, but has done so with dignity and style. He is truly a great ambassador, not only for South African football, but the country as a whole.

When his dodgy knees meant that he was forced to give up playing for Bafana Bafana, Radebe had represented his country on a record 70 occasions, spanning eleven years, including on their very first match back in the international fold, a 1-1 draw against Cameroon at Kings Park Stadium in Durban in July 1992.

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