For Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, tonight's Soweto derby – displaced a few thousand kilometres to Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Stadium – means much more than simply a place in Saturday’s Vodacom Challenge final against Tottenham Hotspur.
It could be the gateway to a career in Europe – and the real possibility of being hailed as South Africa’s finest ever goalkeeper.
After a stellar performance in the Amakhosi’s 1-0 win over Spurs at Polokwane last Saturday, Khune suddenly finds himself thrust in front of World Cup hero Siphiwe Tshabalala and top-scorer Knowledge Musona as Kaizer Chiefs’ most wanted.
While Tshabalala, scorer of that monumental opening goal against Mexico last June, continues to hope for further interest from Steve McClaren’s Nottingham Forest and Musona, despite scoring twice on trial in Germany, awaits further news from Hoffenheim, Khune is getting rave reviews.
A glorious diving save to his left to deny Peter Crouch at the Peter Mokabe Stadium, followed by an acrobatic effort to his right to foil Gareth Bale left viewers at home and abroad gasping... as did his trademark lightning fast distribution.
Gary Mabbutt, looking after Spurs on their African safari before coach Harry Redknapp’s arrival in South Africa on Monday, said: “If we had scored then we probably would have run out victors. The save from Crouch especially was one of the better ones I have seen in a long, long time. He is very confident and controls his box very well. He’s still young, he can make it in Europe.
“I thought the keeper was outstanding. The two saves he made towards the end from Peter Crouch and Gareth Bale were very important because it was just before Chiefs scored.”
And there was further backing from the Spurs players as they wandered around the pool at their plush Palazzo Hotel near Monte Casino on Monday.
Tottenham’s French central defender Younes Kaboul told us: “The Chiefs player who impressed me most was the goalkeeper . He was amazing. I think Khune and Tshabalala could easily make it in Europe, because they really are quality players and they have a good chance of making it in Europe."
Cameroon full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto agrees: "Yeah he is very good with his feet. His distribution is very good."
But the most important confirmation comes from Tottenham’s new signing Brad Friedel, a 39-year-old American who knows a bit about goalkeeping after a record 82 caps for his country and over 400 Premier League appearances.
Before Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Orlando Pirates he said: “I watched South Africa’s young goalkeeper in the World Cup and now we have just played against him and he made two fantastic saves on Saturday.
“He’s not that tall but you can see the spring he has in his legs, that makes up for it and I think he can be able to manoeuvre himself around the goal just fine.
“The thing that stands out is his distribution. It’s outstanding for such a young guy - at 24, he is still very young for a goalkeeper and as long as he keeps working hard he can only get better and better.”
Khune, born in Tshing near Ventersdorp on June 20, 1987, is one of six from a mining family. He went to Chiefs on trial as a teenaged outfielder, injured a leg, and found himself playing in goal. Given a surprising passion for cricket – he lists South African big-hitter Lance Klusener as one of his boyhood heroes – he showed good hands and the rest is history.
Last month, Khune’s agent Jazzman Mahlakgane ruled out a move overseas. He said: “Itumeleng has already indicated to me that he is not ready to move and play abroad for now. He wants to stay in South Africa for at least one more season before moving overseas.”
If Khune shines against Pirates tonight – and, if Chiefs down their old rivals – in the Vodacom Challenge final against Spurs at Ellis Park on Saturday, Jazzman may well be left eating those words.