BAFANA Bafana media officer Matlhomola Morake caught up with captain Itumeleng Khune ahead of the do-or-die 2014 World Cup clash with Ethiopia this coming Sunday.
SAFA Media: Playing this match on June 16, a special day on the South African calendar; what does it mean for you?
Itumeleng Khune: Many people sacrificed their lives for us to be where we are today. Had it not been for all those lives that were lost, we might be living under different circumstances. It is therefore important for us the players, the youth of today, to give back by winning this World Cup match against Ethiopia on this special day for our country. Today we are living in better conditions following actions that were taken years ago in 1976. We know they will be with us in spirit as we tackle this important mission on Sunday.
SAFA Media: And how important is this match?
Khune: This game is almost like everything. It is important to finish what we started. We will not have achieved our goals if we were to go back home with just three points, the mission is six points and fortunately we are on track. Maximum points is our target. I believe we have a great team that can beat Ethiopia in their backyard.
SAFA Media: Is the World Cup stage every player’s dream?
Khune: We all want to play on the big stage, its every player’s dream. Most of the players in the current team played in the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament, so we know what its like to be there and we would want a repeat of that. It is vital again that those that were not there get to experience that level. More importantly, for the country to be represented at the World Cup is a great feeling. For me personally, I would really love to play in my second World Cup tournament, so this game means a lot to all of us.
SAFA Media: Would you compare it to any other important match?
Khune: I have played in many important matches, perhaps at the highest level (World Cup), so this match can be compared to those in terms of importance. After the win against CAR, I said to guys it’s a good feeling and we should celebrate it. But we should not be satisfied with just having won that match but go on and achieve what we set to achieve. We should always strive to get better. It is a crucial match in that we know we are edging closer and closer to Brazil. This is a game our lives and I know everyone wants to make history; everyone wants to be part of history and be counted among those who have helped South Africa qualify for the World Cup. Many people had written us off saying we are only good at hosting, so it is critical that we win on Sunday and show those critics what we are capable of.
SAFA Media: Pressure of playing away?
There is always pressure whether we play home or away. It was good to know that our game against CAR was broadcast live because the fans back home were able to see the hunger and the determination of the team. We have to show the same spirit again against Ethiopia. We know our fans will be with us in spirit and giving us that extra motivation. It was also great to win in Cameroon (against CAR) because previously we really struggled playing away from home, where our best result would be a draw. But we seem to have changed that and coach Gordon Igesund is doing an excellent job in encouraging us to go for more. The mentality has shifted totally, and we are now talking victory in every match we play. With due respect to previous orders, we are now able to withstand the pressure away from home.
SAFA Media: So the Lesotho match was key then?
Khune: Yes, I must commend SAFA for taking our match to Lesotho because we are now reaping the results of the travel and conditions we endured. It is nice to play matches at home in familiar surroundings, but in hindsight it was a good move to play Lesotho away as it also brought the players together. Now we can see the logic of that match and we are grateful for that. Hopefully that experience will come in handy and sustain us in Ethiopia.
SAFA Media: Has the team grown stronger over the last few matches?
Khune: We have indeed. That is what the coach wanted and that is what we wanted. The results we are achieving are an indication of the importance of team spirit. We have really grown. It has not been an easy road though. We still want to improve as a team.
SAFA Media: Any pressure on you personally to perform?
Khune: With the quality of players we have, I have no reason to be under pressure. We have many players who can be leaders in the squad. As selected captain, I have that extra responsibility to lead from the front. I have to be on top of my game all the time and impart that spirit to the rest of the team. I am also well aware that should I not perform, I will be a bad leader. But this is not about me; the entire team has been doing a good job. I am as good as my defenders make me, and they have done a sterling job so far.
SAFA Media: Having watched the video of the match between Ethiopia and Botswana, your thoughts?
Khune: Ethiopia is a very strong side; very organised and they like to play carpet football. But I think we have equally good players that can deal with that threat. We have shown great discipline and good attitude in our matches and that can go a long way in giving us results we need. We have to hit them where it hurts the most, in the back of the net. They have a couple of dangerous players but we know what we need to do. We are confident even though we will have the crowd against us.