JOHANNESBURG – Itumeleng Khune is a Kaizer Chiefs fan before he is the club goalkeeper and captain, he says, explaining why he never wants to let go of the No 1 jersey.
He even reveals that while in his sick bed for three days because of a chest infection earlier this month which led to his withdrawal from Bafana Bafana’s World Cup qualifiers against Cape Verde, he’d pleaded with both the Amakhosi and national team medical departments to speed up his recovery.
“I was booked off for two weeks, but I called our team doctor to ask if I could train for two days and then join the team in Durban for the home leg,” Khune says.
“I felt we were in a good position before going there (to Praia, where Stuart Baxter’s men were surprise 2-1 losers). I had predicted Burkina Faso and Senegal, the other two teams in the group, would play two draws. All we had to do was beat Cape Verde - the pressure would have been off our shoulders.”
Bafana also suffered defeat, by the same scoreline, at home against the islanders.
It’s this kind of desire and will to put his body and health on the line that tagged Khune as the country’s best goalkeeper. Some have even argued that he might very well be Africa’s finest between the sticks.
His temporary replacements for both club and country - Brilliant Khuzwayo at Chiefs and Ronwen Williams and Wayne Sandilands for Bafana - have recently come under fire, with the public adamant there is simply no substitute for Khune.
“Obviously there are always comparisons made, which I feel is not fair,” he explains, adding that he’s often reduced to tears at a lack of clean sheets in his absence.
“I love this club. I have been here since I was 12 years old and have always been a fan.
“If you have noticed, I kiss the badge a lot and hold my hands to the sky because playing for this team is such an honour and a privilege for me. Sometimes I watch these reactions later and I ask myself ‘did I really do that?”
Khune isn’t all talk.
In his return to action away to then high-flying Cape Town City in a league match last week, the 30-year-old claimed a Man of the Match award in Amakhosi’s 2-0 victory. He repeated the same feat when Chiefs hosted Wits at FNB Stadium.
On Wednesday night, Chiefs weathered a Maritzburg United storm, with Khune the central figure, almost single-handedly keeping his side in the game in another 2-0 win at the Harry Gwala Stadium. His reward was a third successive Man of the Match accolade.
“Yes, I have won a lot of trophies, but I play for this team like I’ve just arrived.
“Go to any other club and when you drive in you will notice the difference between a player who has been there for a long time and the one that have just arrived. You will see those who have been there for long are untouchable. They are too relaxed. I am driven by passion,” Khune explains.
“Our fans deserve respect, regardless of how long you have been at the club.
“The new players look at me as the driving force and say that ‘if Itu is not complacent or relaxed, then who are we to come to Chiefs and relax?’ - I always have to lead by example on and off the field.
“I am here to enjoy the moment. I don’t want to retire and have regrets.”
Khune has also shown signs that he is reinventing himself. He says he won’t settle for the ordinary.
“I carry five different types of gloves for all kinds of weather conditions. There’s a ball I dropped against Maritzburg and my defence covered me.
“If I had been wearing a different set, it could have gone in. I am safe. I avoid stupid mistakes. As goalkeepers we have the privilege of using any part of the body. That’s why people sometimes say goalkeepers are crazy.”
Chiefs will be relying on Khune yet again today against log leaders Golden Arrows at FNB Stadium. Kick-off is at 8pm.