ONE man stands between South Africa and a devastating opening defeat when the Rainbow Nation finally shows its true colours at Soccer City on Friday.
If Mexico are going to ruin the World Cup fever sweeping this nation, Itumeleng Khune – armed only with hope and a pair of gloves – is the man assigned to stop them.
On paper, it has to be El Tri, as the Mexicans know their team. They’re ranked 17th to South Africa’s 83rd in the world by FIFA. They have been strong in qualifying and boast a galaxy of stars (watch for Manchester United’s newest signing Javier Hernandez, West Ham’s Guillermo Franco and Arsenal's Carlos Vela up front and former Spurs midfielder Giovanni dos Santos) who would take the mediocre South Africa Premier League by storm.
But Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Khune, after witnessing 180,000 Vuvuzela-venting fans greet the team bus in Sandton yesterday, is having none of it. The 22-year-old, 5ft 11in stopper says: “Mexico should be worried about us. 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. Back 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 29 caps by defying Mexico – who are rapidly followed by Uruguay and France in a difficult Group A. The hosts have never failed to qualify for the knock-out stages at a World Cup but Khune insists: “Mexico should be worried about us as the hosts and we shouldn't be worried about them.
"We can go out there and upset these countries. It will be nice to take all the nine points in the group stage, but we have to realise the other countries won't make it easy for us."
I’ve watched Khune in all five pre-World Cup friendly matches since then, 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 a fortnight ago and was taken off at half-time. But last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Denmark in Atteridgeville was a major turning point for the slightly lightweight goalkeeper and most of his colleagues.
While super-fit midfielders Siphile Tshabala, Teko Modise and Reneilwe YeYe Letsholonyane outshone their illustrious counterpart Steven Pienaar, Khune was near-perfect against the great big Danes in goal, failing to claim just one cross and looking generally composed. His distribution, innovative and rapid, has to be seen to be believed – a real lesson for any aspiring custodian.
South Africa go into the opening game on a high. They are unbeaten in 12 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, those who will be blowing the vuvuzelas at the stadium and the whole nation will be behind us. We have to believe we can win all three group games."
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 www.nealcollins.co.uk.
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