PHOTO: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images
There's no doubting Itumeleng Khune's iconic status as a Kaizer Chiefs player – being at one club for two decades shouldn't be taken lightly. But even legends should know when to step aside.
Of course, goalkeepers appear to have a bit more longevity than their infield colleagues, and there are several examples across the top leagues in Europe to support and prove the old adage that keepers mature with age.
Notable ones like Iker Casillas, Petr Cech and Gianluigi Buffon stayed in their prime and delivered at the highest level even when a lot of us considered them to be way past their sell-by dates. Khune, for a while, looked like he could, too.
He's been unlucky with injuries, to be fair, though it’s a weak excuse.
The truth is that he has returned a shadow of the 2010 World Cup first choice goalkeeper we all remember. His mistakes nowadays are elementary, very schoolboy-like.
You would have never used the word error and Khune in the same sentence six years ago when Chiefs were picking up trophies and he was collecting individual awards as the last line of the defence. Amakhosi supporters knew he'd always play his part.
Now Khune sends stray passes to the opposition and can’t seem to remember when to stay or come off his line in anticipation of an attack. The internet is littered with evidence. Pity. That's not the Khune we know.
A veteran goalkeeper, who says he first arrived at Naturena aged 13 to try his luck with the youth team as a defender before being converted to a keeper, Khune only made six appearances for Chiefs last season under then coach Ernst Middendorp.
He was barely missed – which should tell you something.
In fact, Khune was at one point under Middendorp's tenure considered to be a third choice if not fourth option in the pecking order behind Daniel Akpeyi, Bruce Bvuma and Brylon Petersen simply because he couldn't break back into the match day squad. Again, injuries played a part.
When you are over 30 it takes a lot longer to heal, but when there are videos of you on social media out and about with hangers on while you're away from the playing field that does more harm than good on your chances.
Chiefs izowina njani abo Khune badakwa so mara? 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/zHdPep63TU— T H I E R R Y (@deepthierry) March 3, 2021
Chiefs will usher in a new era next season. If the signing of Brandon Petersen is any indication, then Khune should be concerned. The ex-Bidvest Wits goalie is seven years Khune's junior and is, in many ways, viewed as his successor, after all Chiefs have always gotten it right in this department dating back to the days of Eshele Botende, Brian Baloyi and Rowen Fernandez before a young Khune stepped onto the scene and made that No.1 jersey his own.
Petersen was earmarked to replace him this season until the club's appeal to have the FIFA ban overturned was dismissed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. What that did for Khune was buy him time, but it was only postponing the inevitable, especially with his contract ending on 30 June, though Amakhosi have the option to extend it for another year, if they so wish.
I would suggest that the hierarchy should trigger it because Khune can’t go out like this – an erratic goalkeeper who now seems to have forgotten the basics of what initially put him in his own league as a special talent.
Khune was 21 when he wore the Bafana Bafana jersey for the first time and named in the starting line-up with the great Carlos Alberto Parreira watching on, the man who was sitting in the dugout when Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.
National team coaches have come and gone since, but Khune remained their first choice and was still able to make a comeback when he’d briefly lost his place to the late Senzo Meyiwa as he battled injuries over the last six years or so.
To put Khune's influence and contribution into perspective, he is Bafana's second-most capped player behind Aaron Mokoena with 91 appearances. I think he has himself to blame for not overtaking the record set by 'Mbazo', who was never selected again for the national team a few months after the World Cup on home soil when he’d reached a milestone 107 matches.
Khune was resting on his laurels and you can't blame him – the only time another goalkeeper took over at Chiefs or Bafana was when he was seriously injured. He even joked in 2018 that he used to tell Brilliant Khuzwayo, then his Chiefs understudy, that he would get picked over him when he was "sleeping in a hospital bed".
That's Khune, he's always been self-assured, but humble. And I know this for a fact having travelled with the national team for a number of years across the continent during qualifiers for major tournaments.
When I was stuck and desperate for an impromptu interview, Khune's door was always open, and I don't remember him ever saying he is unavailable unlike many of his prima donna teammates in the Bafana squad.
He's let himself go, quite a bit. Maybe it's the frustration of not playing last season or something we aren't privy to.
Khune, nicknamed Mzansi's finest, can no longer be No.1 for club and country, but his legacy can continue at Chiefs, albeit a little bit away from the spotlight. He doesn't just know the club culture, he's lived it for the better part of his career, from arriving there as a teenager to now being a fully grown man with a family of his own.
Right now, it looks like there won't be a fairytale ending, but if Khune accepts that his best days are behind him, he could make a simple – but not easy – transition within the institution and still be able to call Naturena home.
The club has supported him in the most difficult of times. He tragically lost his sister, Mapula, two months ago and had to take time off. When he returned, he played a supporting role in Bafana's failed qualification for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations and later rolled back the years in a Chiefs shirt to help Amakhosi make history by progressing to the quarterfinals of the Caf Champions League.
To argue that Khune is a national treasure is quite a tough sell at the moment. He's not covered himself in all that much glory in the majority of matches he’s played in this season, although there are a few worth highlighting.
If Khune announced his retirement today, very few would bat an eyelid, and such has been his minimal contribution over the last three seasons.
But he has plenty to offer, I just don’t believe he can do that as the star of the show anymore. Khune is better suited in a supporting role. It’s the only logical step.