Nothing seems to come easily for Itumeleng Khune. A career in professional football was never written in the stars for him, but it’s precisely because of that—because of his story, because of the adversity he has faced and good nature he has met it with—that he is almost universally loved.
Just 25-years of age he has already been capped 50 times for South Africa—a milestone he achieved on Wednesday against Angola. Bafana Bafana, as the national team is affectionately known, won the match 2-0 to take sole possession of first place in Group A at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, and throughout the 90 minutes Khune demonstrated both the marshalling and ball-distribution skills he has become famous for in the Premier Soccer League.
After the match he took questions from a handful of reporters and addressed the occasion of his 50th appearance for his country.
“It wasn’t an easy ride,” he said. “It was an up-and-down journey for me in order to reach the 50 because I got injuries along the way. But,” he added, “I managed to bounce back in the setup and regain the number-one spot. And here I am having reached 50, so I wish God can grant me blessings in order for me to get 50 more.”
That he even got one is testament to his strength of character.
Khune was born in the northwest township of Tshing, near the community of Ventersdorp—the base of a far-right, Afrikaner secessionist movement. A fan of cricket as a youngster, he moved to Johannesburg when he was 12 to try out with Kaizer Chiefs in hopes of making enough money to send back to his father and five siblings in Tshing.
Initially used as a defender, he was dropped from the trials when it was discovered he had a respiratory condition and was assigned to the role of ballboy. The disappointment didn’t last long, however, as he soon caught the eye of a youth coach who noticed him diving this way and that to save the shots that missed the goal.
By 2004 Khune, the accidental goalkeeper, had been promoted to the first team at Kaizer Chiefs and in 2007, at 20, he won the top job at the Johannesburg giants.
That first season still stands as the most decorated of his career. In addition to helping post the best defensive record in the PSL, Khune backstopped Kaizer Chiefs to a pair of cup wins and was named Rookie of the Year, Players’ Player of the Season, the club’s Player of the Season and the PSL Goalkeeper of the Season. The following March he earned his first international cap.
A succession of South Africa managers has entrusted the net to Khune, but with just days to go before the opening of the 2010 World Cup at Soccer City the goalkeeper, having gone off injured in a pre-tournament game against Colombia, was a major injury doubt ahead of the June 11 curtain-raiser against Mexico. Further hampering his chances was the fact that Moeneeb Josephs, the number-two, had performed well in a recent match against Guatemala, even stopping a penalty.
But Khune managed to recover in time and was between the sticks when the ball was kicked for the first time in a World Cup on the African continent. He started South Africa’s second match as well, although his tournament ended prematurely when he was ejected for bringing down Luis Suarez in the 76th minute against Uruguay (an act that, to some, no doubt makes him an even more endearing character).
In January 2011 Khune was presented with a first chance to make a move abroad. His play for both club and country had caught the eye of Crystal Palace, and Siphiwe Tshabalala—scorer of the 2010 World Cup’s first goal—was invited to accompany him to Selhurst Park.
In the end it was only Tshabalala who made the trip, injuries having caught up with Khune once again. His trial was put off until February and then abandoned completely, although by then the goalkeeper had signed a new, three-year contract with Kaizer Chiefs. And while the pact may have been intended to draw the highest possible fee from Palace, Khune vowed upon putting pen to paper that he would never represent another club in South Africa.
“I grew up [in Johannesburg] and I never saw myself starting a new life in another local team,” he said. “It is good for other players to do this but for me if I leave Chiefs then it would be for Europe with the blessings of the club.”
He also acknowledged the risk Kaizer Chiefs were taking by inking a player who hadn’t played in three months to a long-term deal.
“It is my ambition to win back the number-one jersey, both at Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana…I have been pushing myself in training, and you can ask Goalkeeping Coach Rainer Dinkelacker if I have been working really hard,” he said. “The current technical team has also contributed a lot to my growth both as a player and a person.”
Khune did regain the top job for both outfits and earlier this season won the praise of Gavin Hunt, manager of PSL rival SuperSport United, who offered that the 25-year-old is worth 20 points to Kaizer Chiefs over the course of a campaign. Chiefs are presently atop the PSL standings with 35 points from 16 matches, and with his health worries behind him for the time being Khune is hoping to help the club to its first title since 2005—a championship that would represent his first major piece of silverware.
But even as his career regains traction Khune has not been able to avoid personal tragedy. Last October, while he and South Africa were contesting a friendly against Poland in Warsaw, his sister passed away and he was granted a week’s bereavement leave by his club. In a statement he thanked the considerable support offered by the public during his time of grief. Kaizer Chiefs went out of the cup to BidVest Wits in his absence.
There’s an argument to be made, and a good one, that Khune is the most important player for both Kaizer Chiefs and South Africa. Already the captain at his club side, he has previously donned the armband for his country as well and is one of Bafana Bafana’s key leadership figures at the Africa Cup of Nations.
“One thing I have to keep in mind is that I am not bigger than the game,” he said in an interview with the South African Football Association in the run-up to the competition. “I have to keep my feet firmly on the ground and remain humble…I have always believed in hard work, and it has taken me to where I am today.”