South Africa’s once-fragile goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, so nearly impenetrable at Soccer City’s big kick-off against Mexico last Friday, has to do it all over again at Loftus Versfeld tomorrow.
When South Africa play Uruguay, the whole tournament will be turned up a notch. After endless cautious opening group games around the Rainbow Nation, the hosts will be the first to play their second game at this World Cup.
Traditionally the first game is all about not wanting to lose. South Africa and Uruguay both drew their openings games, and a win becomes imperative if either side is to emerge from Group A.
Goalkeeper Khune, outstanding in the 1-1 draw in front of 85,000 hysterical fans on day one, goes into day six saying: "I can’t quite describe how it was in that opening game. It’s one of those moments you need to experience yourself to understand.
"When you are a goalkeeper you have responsibilities - I needed to make the saves for the team.”
Given the goalkeeping errors in the tournament so far – most notably Rob Green’s appalling error for England in their 1-1 draw against the US last Saturday – Khune knows the pressure is on with the light Jabulani ball misbehaving at altitude.
But he told the Kaizer Chiefs website: "It wasn’t just me who contributed against Mexico, I feel the whole team played well. But we have to be even better against Uruguay.”
With World Cup fever (locally known as “feva”) sweeping the country, the 22-year-old, 5ft 11in stopper says: “I think anything is possible with the nation behind us. We are more than ready for this World Cup. We will go out there to do our best for the country.”
He certainly has what every goalkeeper requires. Safe hands. As the son of a miner in Tshing, just outside Ventersdorp, he was ready to become a cricketer. One of six children, Khune idolised the South African cricketers – and still enjoys watching the Proteas. He says: “Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener used to be my favourites when I was growing up. As a kid in Ventersdorp we used to have a rubbish bin as the wickets and use a spade as the bat.”
He only chose football at the tender age of 12 when Kaizer Chiefs – South Africa’s best-supported club - came calling in 1999. Khune recalls: “When we were kids we used to gather at a disused hall before classes and kick a tennis ball around. After school it was the same thing.”
Travelling to the Chiefs academy was a problem. He said: “My parents were not happy because I would only arrive home late at night. Sometimes I had to sleep at the train station as I couldn’t get home. There wasn’t food, there wasn’t money, but we had to accept the situation.”
Khune was a defender back then. He did well in trials – chosen as the 32nd best player on the day, that’s still the number he wears - but chest problems relegated him to ball boy status. And his enthusiastic diving for the loose ball attracted the attention of Chiefs’ veteran goalkeeper Brian Baloyi “my mentor, on and off the field”. By 2004, aged 17, he was training with the first team.
Three years later, Khune got the nod as Chiefs’ regular No1 when Rowen Fernandez left for Germany’s Arminia Bielefeld and Emile Baron was forced out by injury. He made his local Premier Soccer League debut against Jomo Cosmos in 2007 and immediately impressed, forcing his way into the national squad where he made his debut against Zimbabwe in 2008.
A broken finger put Khune out for three months this season but World Cup-winning Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has stuck with the lad who famously saved a penalty from David Villa during last year’s Confederations Cup.
Khune prepares to add to his 30 caps by defying Uruguay before the final game against France in Bloemfontein on June 22. The hosts have never failed to qualify for the knock-out stages at a World Cup but Khune insists: “We are the hosts, we shouldn’t be worried about anybody, they should be worried about us.
"We can go out there and upset these countries, but we have to realise they won't make it easy for us."
I’ve watched Khune in all five pre-World Cup friendly matches and that Mexico opener, often with former South Africa goalkeeper Deshi Bhaktawer beside me. We had our doubts. He was groggy after an early clash in the 2-1 win over Colombia three weeks ago and was taken off at half-time. But the 1-0 win over Denmark in Atteridgeville was a major turning point for the slightly lightweight goalkeeper and most of his colleagues.
Khune’s distribution, innovative and rapid, has to be seen to be believed – a real lesson for any aspiring custodian. He has that slight “vampire” weakness... an aversion to crosses, but has worked hard on dominating the area.
The Mexico game was another giant stride forward for Khune and his Kaizer Chiefs team-mates. Super-fit midfielders Siphile Tshabala, Teko Modise and Reneilwe YeYe Letsholonyane – who all play for South Africa’s biggest club - outshone their illustrious counterpart Kevin Pienaar, player of the year at Everton last season.
While Pienaar confessed to “tiredness”, Khune was near-perfect against the Mexicans and could do little about the equaliser after Tshabalala’s superb opening goal, still the best we’ve seen at this tournament.
South Africa go into the Uruguay game on a high. They are unbeaten in 13 games since Parreira agreed to return to the hottest seat in football, they are fitter than any side I’ve seen – some of the players have lost 6kg (over two stone) since the first harsh training camp in Brazil three months ago.
Like Guus Hiddink’s ferociously fit hosts South Korea in 2002, Parreira has chosen the “fit as a robber’s dog” philosophy too. And remember, Korea got to the last four eight years ago.
Khune, like the rest of this football-mad nation, is starting to believe. He said: "We have the advantage of our home supporters, the whole nation will be behind us. In our camp, we believe nothing is impossible. Nothing will be the same after the World Cup.”
And on the thorny subject of the African football horn, he grins: “There weren’t enough Vuvuzelas at Soccer City. We appeal to the South Africans to please bring more vuvuzelas to Loftus.
“We want to hear the sound of vuvuzelas reverberating in all our matches. The more the sound of vuvuzelas, the better for us. We always feel good when we hear the sound of the vuvuzelas.”
Neal Collins is in South Africa to promote his first novel, A GAME APART, which has hit No15 on Amazon's African best-sellers list. For more information, see http://www.nealcollins.co.uk.
And if you think the Scottish bagpipes should be banned rather than the Vuvuzela, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1hrMRk5FnY