There was a collective gasp of concern as South Africans around the country held their breath, many with their hands over their heads, after watching Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Khune being stretchered off the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium pitch after an unfortunate clash with Chippa United’s Kurt Lentjies in a Telkom Knockout encounter on Sunday.
The same thought was running through the minds of countless local fans: will 'Itu' be okay for South Africa’s all-important World Cup qualifier five days later?
At this stage, it’s still to be determined whether the courageous captain will indeed play through the pain of his facial fracture – possibly with a mask – and risk further injury against a motivated Senegalese outfit who are in the pound seats to secure their passage to Russia.
Described by many as the country’s best goalkeeper, this description is not merely a label – the numbers prove it too.
So far this season, Khune has kept goal in 11 of Chiefs’ 14 matches across all competitions, keeping seven clean sheets and conceding just five goals, saving the blushes of his defence on a number of occasions
His command of the penalty area, shot-stopping abilities and unmatched distribution makes him a vital performer for both club and country.
Fast approaching 90 matches for the national team, he provides experience and a sense of calmness at the back, with his solid showing in the 3-1 victory over Burkina Faso last time out proving his worth and highlighting how badly he was missed in the back-to-back losses against Cape Verde.
Yet the most telling stat is this: it’s been more than two years since Bafana Bafana lost a match with Khune in goals. That fixture was a forgetful 3-1 loss to Mauritania in a Nations Cup qualifier on 5 September 2015.
Since then, Itu has played 12 games for Bafana, helping the nation to seven victories and five draws while keeping five clean sheets.
Although coach Stuart Baxter has voiced his support for back-up goalkeepers Wayne Sandilands and Ronwen Williams, the truth is that both have endured a torrid time in a Bafana shirt. Neither have been all too convincing and both will surely feel the immense pressure of the nation, and the occasion, should they be called up to fill Khune’s boots.
Sandilands is still suffering the humiliation of conceding a wonder-goal struck from the halfway line from former club teammate Hlompho Kekana, and entered the Bafana camp having conceded five goals in the space of four days. In 11 domestic club matches this season, he’s conceded 10 goals and kept five clean sheets, with his last memory in a Bafana jersey being the two (albeit well-taken) goals conceded against Cape Verde in the reverse fixture in September.
SuperSport United shot-stopper Williams has more reasons to be upbeat than Sandilands, having played a crucial role in helping his side to a maiden CAF Confederation Cup final, while proving pivotal in SuperSport’s penalty shootout victory over Cape Town City in the MTN8 final. In 10 domestic games so far this campaign, he’s conceded seven goals and kept four clean sheets.
Yet his record in a Bafana jersey has become more than a running joke, and might be more of a mental stumbling block the longer this curse continues: in the five occasions he’s been given the opportunity to start for Bafana, Williams is yet to taste victory, suffering three losses and two draws, conceding 10 goals in the process, including a disastrous five in his debut against Brazil in 2014.
For both Williams and Sandilands, the mental aspect of being thrown in for Friday’s Senegal clash could be the biggest hindrance: they both have sketchy Bafana records, they both conceded two and suffered a loss in their last outing for the national team, they both know they’re back-ups to Khune, and they both know the demanding supporters will be eyeing their every move should they play. Despite being professionals and having dealt with similar situations previously in their careers, they are also human. The pressure, and the occasion, could get the better of them.
Each shot-stopper, based on merit, deserves their place in the Bafana Bafana squad, yet there’s no doubt that collectively, fans will feel a touch more reassured with Khune between the posts come 19h00 on Friday.