Matthew Booth could probably be elected president of South Africa if he decided to run for the position, such is the extent of his growing celebrity in his country.
One of the many iconic moments of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup tournament held in South Africa was of a stadium full of black soccer fans vociferously cheering on Booth, the lone white player on the Bafana Bafana squad — every time the lanky defender touched the ball, the crowd would serenade him with a deafening chant of "Booth."
Booth is a popular man in his country, to be sure, but he's also a realist, and he knows South Africa will have its work cut out in trying to advance to the round of 16 in this month's World Cup being staged on home soil.
Many media pundits are predicting South Africa will become the first host nation in the 80-year history of the World Cup not to make it out of the first round, and for good reason. Bafana Bafana, currently No. 83 in the FIFA world rankings, were drawn into a difficult opening group with France (No. 9), Uruguay (No. 16) and Mexico (No. 17).
Few are giving South Africa much chance of advancing to the second round, a fact not lost on Booth.
"As a player I'm going to be confident and I believe that we are quite capable of making it out of the first round," Booth told CBCSports.ca. "But we also have to be realistic and look at our ranking. I think a lot of people are expecting us to fail, so that gives us motivation to prove them wrong."
Surprise at Confederations Cup
Proving people wrong is what Booth and his teammates did a year ago at the Confederations Cup, when they advanced to the semifinals of the eight-team tournament.
Many thought South Africa would serve as nothing more than cannon fodder, but the hosts gave eventual winners Brazil everything it could handle (in the semifinals) and put in another stellar effort in a loss to European champions Spain (in the third-place game).
Booth believes if South Africa can duplicate that performance, his team will surprise a lot of people at the World Cup.
"If we can regain the form we had during the Confederations Cup last year, I think we're more than capable of getting through to the next round," Booth said. "Once we've done that, the euphoria that will be surrounding this team will be enough to carry us to further heights."
Garnering the early momentum is the key, said Booth, who feels a victory in the first game of the tournament against Mexico, on June 11 in Johannesburg, is a must-win game for his country.
"Our main hurdle is the first game," Booth stated. "I believe if we can get a good result there, the nerves will subside and the people will really get behind us."