“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it” is the kind of stuff you only expect to hear from a motivational speaker. Even still, it sounds tediously cliché for the simple reason that the phrase has been overused and, in some instances, misused.
But that’s until you begin to follow the story of one Itumeleng Khune. Some 21 years ago, after accidentally making it into the Kaizer Chiefs Under 13 team, the man popularly known as Itu, clad in the Reebok club jersey, tied a small blue, white, red and green cloth around his arm. It was meant to be an armband. He hoisted a picture of the then Amakhosi senior team and posed for a picture.
In essence, the picture summed up two dreams – to play for one of the country’s biggest teams and to go on and captain the club.
Interestingly, when 12-year-old Khune, who hails from Ventersdorp in the North West, won a place in Amakhosi’s junior set-up, his father had started working as a driver at a mine in Carletonville. The mining town of Carletonville lies west of Johannesburg and is about 80km from Ventersdorp.
For Khune, whose dream had always been to play for the Soweto giants, his dad’s move meant he had a fresh challenge in his life. He now had to wake up at the crack of dawn, rushing to catch the train to Braamfontein, where Chiefs had enrolled him at New Nation College.
After a day of wrestling with the books, Khune would then run as fast as his young legs could carry him, all the way to Milo Park, where young Chiefs’ hopefuls trained.
After undergoing a gruelling training session, he would once again turn to his feet, running all the way to Langlaagte station to catch the train home to Carletonville.
The next day, he would wake up again at 5AM to do it all over again. For a youngster his age, it sounds like a baptism of fire, but it was one that Khune cherished. After all, he was lucky to be there. The gods of football had just smiled upon him after he failed his initial trial at Chiefs.
“Every time I always laugh when I tell this story. He was so desperate to play for Kaizer Chiefs,” says Terror Sephooa, the then Chiefs Under 13 coach.
He laughs uncontrollably as he remembers that Khune initially claimed he was a striker.
“He told me he was a striker. I had to play him where he was comfortable. So, when I was taking them through drills – shooting, turning, control, I noticed ukuthi yinyakanyaka, akukho lutho lapha (it’s a disaster, he couldn’t play as a striker),” Sephooa adds.
Khune the striker, according to Sephooa, was not worth coaching. Broad shouldered and a bit taller than the average 12-year-old, Khune was all passion and little talent.
There could be no doubting his passion. He had, after all, travelled 160kms from Ventersdorp for the initial trial. Failure was simply not an option.
“Itu came with his father the first time and he dropped him off for the trials,” says Sephooa. “I told him and others that they had failed, and they should go home and return the following year after improving. So, he went to the stands and started crying.”
Sephooa, who plied his trade for Moroka Swallows as a midfielder, recalls how a club staff member asked Khune where he was from. And when the message was relayed to him that the distraught young boy was from Ventersdorp, guilt struck him.
“I was guilty thinking I didn’t give him a fair chance. I gave him another chance and afterwards I was convinced I had made the right decision. He didn’t have the skills of a striker. I then said to him since he was a bit tall with broad shoulders, I gave him another chance and tried him in defence. But still, he wasn’t good enough,” he says.
The realisation that he would not make the grade was a hammer blow for a young Khune. Home is where the heart is, the saying goes, but Khune’s heart beats only for the Phefeni Glamour Boys. At 12, he already bled black and gold.
Khune found in Kaizer Chiefs the kind of comfort that eluded him at home, where his family was stalked by hunger and hardship. “I risked my life as a 12-year-old boy, travelling in a train for that distance,” Khune is on record as saying during his early days at Chiefs.
He did it because he was a big dreamer. It didn’t matter if he was eating or not eating. He learnt to accept the situation wasn’t good at home and he decided he had to go out and change whatever had to be changed.
At such a young age, he knew he only had one opportunity. Sometimes it meant sleeping at the train station as he couldn’t get home, rousing the ire of his parents.
For all his hunger and determination, on that fine day back in 1999, Khune had now come face to face with failure. Failure meant he had to go back to poverty and low expectations in Ventersdorp. It meant going back to a place known mostly for being the chosen nest of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Neo-Nazi separatist group led by the infamous Eugene “ET” Terre’Blanche.
In fact, Khune has spoken of one incident when, at the local Spar, he saw Terre’Blanche galloping through the store on his horse, as someone filled his basket up with groceries for him.
He has also told a story of another day when, while on his way to charge the battery their family used to power up their TV, Terre’Blanche, this time behind the wheel of his bakkie, accosted him at a four-way stop and instructed his dog to tear him to pieces.
Terre’Blanche did not want to see black people, and whenever he came across any, he would send his dog to have them for lunch. Luckily that day, there were traffic cops across the road, and Khune was spared and made a hasty getaway.
This is what awaited the wannabe football star should he have accepted failure. While he might not have been a hotshot young striker on the pitch, life off it was not rosy.
As the dark cloud of failure stalked him, a silver lining was shining on the way. Sephooa had noticed his love and passion for Amakhosi and was determined to get him involved somehow. Instead of languishing in the stands, far off the action, Sephooa instead made him a glorified ball boy, asking him to pick up balls during shooting practise.
“You could tell the boy really loved Kaizer Chiefs. So, I invited Khune to our shooting practice, I asked him to stand behind the goalkeeper and pick stray balls. As we were doing that, I noticed the goalkeeper was missing the balls and Khune was diving and saving them. I asked him to come back on Saturday when I was training goalkeepers. He came and I noticed he had potential. I started training them,” says Sephooa.
It was on that touchline at Milo Park, as young boys perfected their shooting skills, that Khune the goal minder was born.
Ryder Mofokeng, who was training the Under 17s on that day that Sephooa made his accidental discovery, has not forgotten the excitement his colleague exuded after identifying that Khune was instead a goalminder.
“I heard him shouting ‘hee ngwana morena, please come here’. He was so convinced he had unearthed a special talent,” Mofokeng says. From that day on, Khune became the club’s Under 13 first choice goalkeeper.
A year later, he moved to the Under 15s and had Cape Town City midfielder Mpho Makola as a teammate.
“I saw a picture recently of us in the Under 15s. Of that group, Itu and I are the only ones that made it to the PSL,” Makola says, adding that Khune was so set on his goal to play for Amakhosi in the PSL.
Although Khune had cracked the junior ranks at Chiefs, albeit by accident, as he rose through the ranks, success was not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination.
Chiefs have a proud tradition of brilliant goalkeepers and when Khune was promoted to the senior side in 2004, the men between the sticks back then were the legendary duo of Rowen Fernandez and Emille Baron. They would not be easy to dislodge.
After 3 years of anxiously waiting to make his debut, the football gods smiled at Khune once again. He finally got his opportunity in the 2007/08 season after the departure of Fernandez to German club Arminia Bielefeld. With the experienced Baron often plagued by injuries, Khune was made number one by then Chiefs coach Muhsin Ertugral. He made his PSL debut against Jomo Cosmos on 25 August 2008.
Many will remember him for several match-winning displays for Chiefs that saw the club finish that season with one of the best defensive records.
“I feel so good when I see a boy from Ventersdorp where Terre’Blanche comes from make it this far and become SA’s number 1. Everyone knows the way Terre’Blanche hated blacks, but a star came from that town and became number 1 in a World Cup tournament. I don’t care that he will never buy me bubble gum, but I’m just fulfilled he’s done well. I’ve done my job,” says Sephooa.
Rightly so, 3 League titles, 1 Coca-Cola Cup, 3 Telkom Knockout, 1 Absa Cup, 2 Nedbank Cups, 3 MTN8 trophies, a host of individual awards and 306 appearances later, Khune is without a doubt one of Amakhosi’s greats. He has achieved both his dreams after being appointed Chiefs’ captain in August 2016. It is easy to marvel at what he has gone on to achieve for club and country, but it could have been so different.
He could have been torn to bits by Terre’Blanche’s dogs. He could have let the poverty and hardships at home break his spirit and steal his dream. He could have turned back and went home after that first night sleeping at the train station.
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By Mthokozisi Dube