By Mark Gleeson
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Love him or hate him, South Africa cannot seem to do without Benni McCarthy.
The striker has gone from being a hero to a subject of much derision after years of strained relationships with the national team and their supporters.
South Africa's inability to find a player who can match his goal-scoring acumen means, however, that the 32-year-old McCarthy continues to be central to the country's hopes, even if he has hardly played this season.
McCarthy was an overnight sensation when he first burst into the national consciousness as a 20-year-old, ending up top scorer at the 1998 African Nations Cup finals where South Africa unexpectedly finished runners-up.
The forward, who grew up in the ganglands of Cape Town, went on to compete at two World Cups and become the country's all-time leading goal scorer.
He also made his name in Europe at club level, moving first to Ajax Amsterdam, then, for a record transfer fee of some five million euros, to Celta Vigo in Spain. He won the 2004 UEFA Champions League with FC Porto.
It was inevitable that his club career would clash with national team duties and McCarthy announced his retirement from international football to avoid playing at the 2000 Nations Cup finals.
He made a contrite comeback six months later but pulled out of the side several times again when his club needed him, earning the ire of South Africans.
Though he has not been forgiven, the arguments about his behavior have gone quiet because of the paucity of scoring talent in the current squad.
Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has had little alternative but to pick McCarthy as one of his key players for the finals, even though he has played little for his club West Ham this season and is expected to be far from full match fitness.
"His experience is vital because he has had more exposure at the top level than any other of the national team players," Parreira told Reuters in a recent interview.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)