|Safe hands: Itumeleng Khune|
ITUMELENG KHUNE. The name is familiar. The style is impeccable. The distribution is innovative. The hunger is endless.
Voted the best player of the Professional Soccer League’s third quarter this month, Khune – the asthmatic lad from Tshing near Ventersburg – has recovered from the embarrassment of his untimely AFCON celebrations two years ago and a mysterious five-month injury sabbatical to emerge as South Africa’s undisputed No1.
Though the widely-hyped relationship break-up with restyled football analyst Minnie Dlamini has taken its toll, his form on the international and domestic stage has seen talk of an overseas move resurface.
Stuart Baxter, the widely-travelled Englishman in charge of the AmaKhosi’s double crusade, said after Saturday night’s 1-0 Nedbank Cup quarter-final win against Bloemfontein Celtic: “He’s probably the best goalkeeper on the continent right now.
“Naturally I am very pleased with the result and very pleased with the performance of the players. I thought we played quite well in the first half, I thought we defended the box well.
“But Celtic just kept pumping away and you worried at one point that things were going to break in the box, and it did, but when it breaks in the box we have the best goalkeeper probably on the continent so I’m just very happy to have him.”
Khune, still only 25, 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. Nicky Boje was my idol. 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 Chiefs 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 breathing problems relegated him to ball boy status. And his enthusiastic diving for the loose ball attracted the attention of youth coach Terror Sephoa and 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 in 2010 but World Cup-winning Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira stuck with the lad who famously saved a penalty from David Villa during the 2009 Confederations Cup.
An impressive World Cup was followed by the awful upset of his time-wasting antics during the infamous draw against Sierra Leone at Mbombela when South Africa thought they had qualified for the 2011 African Cup of Nations.
Then came two successive injuries – first his shoulder, then his groin - and Khune literally disappeared from the face of football for months on end with veteran Arthur Bartman unable to maintain the AmaKhosi title challenge in the face of arch-rivals Orlando Pirates, or Drawlando as they are now known.
Having Khune on hand – literally and figuratively – all season has undoubtedly kept Baxter’s bid for both the PSL and Nedbank Cup on the rails.
Though SuperSport youngster Ronwen Williams is also regarded as a serious South African glovemeister for the future , Khune – the Bafana No1 and goalkeeper for the nation’s current form team – looks peerless despite a slightly vampire-tinged aversion to crosses.
Former Liverpool and Holland gloveman Sander Westerveld, the Ajax Cape Town goalkeeper reputed to be the best-paid custodian in the PSL, says: “Khune’s distribution is the best you will see anywhere. He kicks right to the attacker’s feet, wherever they are.
“But he also makes great saves. Against Brazil in Gordon Igesund’s first friendly, he was unbeatable. I don’t know why he is not playing in Europe. Maybe not in England because it is so physical, but he could be playing for Valencia and would not look out of place.”
Khune insists he has not received any written offers from Arsenal, Turkey’s Besiktas or any other foreign club, preferring to concentrate on getting those safe hands on his first ever PSL winners’ medal.
With his team seven points ahead five games from the end of the season, he says: “We know the title can still be lose, that’s why we are not getting carried away. Anything can still happen, but everything is in our control. It’s up to us to secure the title.
“We don’t want to lose it now … we can’t allow that to happen. There’s a saying that it’s hard to get to the top, but it’s easy to fall. We have to keep our focus until the season is over.”
A shorter version of this article will appear as my Neal and Pray column in www.thenewage.co.za this week. You can also see me on eNCSnews (DSTV channel 403, Sky channel 518) talking about the weekend's football tomorrow morning just after 8am.