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South Africa's white knight

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Simon Austin | 10:32 UK time, Thursday, 6 August 2009

As the only white player in South Africa's starting line-up, Matthew Booth accepts he "sticks out like a sore thumb" every time they play.

This led some foreign observers to assume he was being booed by the predominantly black crowds at this summer's Confederations Cup, when in fact the complete opposite was the case.

The 6ft 6in central defender is a firm favourite with the fans of Bafana Bafana, who greet his every touch with loud cries of "Booooth!"

With the biggest season in South Africa's football history about to kick off, the 32-year-old is set to be the hosts' poster boy at next summer's World Cup, so expect to hear and see a lot more of him in the coming year.

Booth was South Africa's only white player during the Confederations CupIn a country where football is played and followed mainly by the black population, Booth makes for an unlikely hero.

His upbringing in the white middle-class village of Fish Hoek on the outskirts of Cape Town dictated that he shouldn't even play football, let alone become a professional.

"We only played rugby and cricket at my all-white boys' school and those sports were almost pushed down your throat," he tells me.

"To play football, I had to go to a local club after school. It had an open-door policy allowing blacks and whites to play together, which was probably against the law at that time.

"It meant that from the age of five I was playing alongside black and coloured kids, when my schoolmates would never have come into contact with them.

"I was lucky that my dad encouraged me to play football, because he had loved playing the game when he was a kid."

Within minutes of talking to Booth, you quickly realise what a fascinating character he is. Not only does he speak Russian, post a regular video diary from the South Africa camp on YouTube and have a wife who is a former super model, but he has forthright, controversial opinions.

It's a refreshing change from some of the anodyne utterances we are used to hearing from players in the English Premier League.

For example he strongly argues that sport is still divisive in South Africa, when it should be a unifying force.

"Football has been construed as a black sport here in South Africa and that means it hasn't got the money it deserves," he says.

"Rugby and cricket are seen as the white sports and they get the money and the sponsorship."Booth shakes hands with Kaka after the Confederations Cup semi-final between South Africa and Brazil

While these "white sports" are played on "manicured lawns", Booth says black schoolchildren play football on "dirt and scrubland".

Booth is urging the South African government to invest more in grassroots football and to stop school sports being played along racial lines.

He wants them to ensure that black children are able to play rugby and cricket, with their white counterparts being encouraged to try football.

So it's easy to see why the imposing centre-half has become such a hero for the supporters of both his club side, the Mamelodi Sundowns, and Bafana Bafana.

Despite his upbringing in a leafy middle-class area, the townships have become a big part of Booth's life.

His wife Sonia Bonneventia grew up in Soweto, the massive township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

They met when Bonneventia, who finished second in the 2001 Miss South Africa contest, was babysitting for one of his team-mates and they now have two young sons together.

"Our backgrounds are like chalk and cheese," he admits. "Soweto is very different from my upbringing in the suburbs, but I absolutely love it there.

"We visit all the time because it's where my wife's family still live and I go there on nights out with my team-mates. The atmosphere and vibe is unique and I would advise any tourist to pay a visit."

Bonneventia gained a business and marketing degree after retiring as a model and Booth says: "She has the beauty AND the brains - I'm not quite sure what she sees in me!"

Booth gained a host of new admirers with his no-nonsense displays during the Confederations Cup, playing a key role in South Africa securing fourth place in the tournament.

He has been described as an old-fashioned centre-half, imperious in the air and tenacious in the tackle, and had hoped for an offer from an English Premier League side after the tournament.

After playing on loan for Wimbledon for half a season in 2001 - "not a happy time because the club was in turmoil over the move to Milton Keynes" - he had always dreamed of playing for one of the big teams in England.

Sadly, the anticipated approach never materialised and he is now focused on helping the Sundowns improve on their disappointing ninth-place finish last season.

Booth is also grateful for having had the chance to play for seven seasons in Russia, for FC Rostov and Krylya Sovetov, during an exotic career.

The Sundowns kick off their Premier League season against the Mpumalanga Black Aces at their home stadium in Atteridgeville near Pretoria on Saturday.

It promises to be an interesting season, not least because Booth's new coach is the brooding, charismatic Hristo Stoichkov.

What does he make of the former Barcelona and Bulgaria legend so far?

"He's a no-nonsense coach, which was badly needed for the discipline of the team," he says.

"But at the same time he comes across as a players' coach and so far has got on well with all the players. His will to win as a player definitely comes out in his management."

The Sundowns are often described as the Chelsea of South Africa, thanks to the backing they receive from their wealthy benefactor, the platinum magnate Patrice Motsepe.
Despite being the most successful side in South Africa over the last 20 years, their form has been poor in recent times.

And difficult as it might be, Booth is determined to concentrate on each game this season, rather than looking over the horizon toward next summer's World Cup.

"A week is a long time in football, so a year is massive," he says. "That means I won't get too far ahead of myself, because otherwise I won't be in the World Cup squad, let alone the team.

"Playing in a World Cup in your home country would be the pinnacle for most players and it gives me such motivation."

If he can achieve that aim, be sure to hear loud cries of "Boooth" above the wail of the vuvuzelas in South Africa next summer.

* For more up-to-the-minute chat, you can follow me on my Twitter feed


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