What is common to South African Itumeleng Khune, who spoilt Brazil’s start in men’s Olympics football competition, and India’s Amrinder Singh apart from them being goalkeepers in their national teams? Answer: In Predipkumar ‘Deshi’ Bhaktawer, they have had a common coach.
Bhaktawer is South Africa’s goalkeepers’ coach for the Olympics. For two seasons of the Indian Super League (ISL), he performed the same role for Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) and is set to return for ISL 3.
At Brasilia’s Estadio Mane Garrincha, Khune was one of the stars for South Africa as they held Brazil, led by Barcelona star Neymar, 0-0 in what was the opening game for bwoth teams. Coached by Owen da Gama, this was South Africa’s first men’s football match in the Olympics since Sydney 2000.
What made the effort even more creditable for South Africa was that they played with 10 men from the 59th minute after midfielder Mothobi Mvala was shown the red card for a second booking. Khune, 29, and one of the two over-23 players in the squad, saved six shots including three from Neymar and two from Gabriel Barbosa.
A regular in the senior national team since 2008, Khune also had a good World Cup when South Africa hosted it. When they set the 2010 finals going against Mexico at Johannesburg’s Soccer City, Khune began with a couple of good saves denying Barcelona veteran Rafael Marquez and Guillermo Francol to help ‘Bafana Bafana’ weather the early storm. The match ended 1-1. Two years earlier, in the Vodacom Challenge, an invitational tournament that also had Manchester United, Khune, playing for Kaizer Chiefs, had denied Ryan Giggs a hattrick at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium.
A one-club player, Khune was called to the senior national team even before he had played for the Chiefs’ first team. He slept in train stations to be able to reach training in time while being part of the Chiefs’ youth set-up which he joined in 1999.
Khune still plays for Chiefs and along with Nigeria’s Mikel John Obi is the 2016 Olympics’ most experienced player with 75 national team appearances.
“No one gave us a chance, we came here as an underdog to play against the host team but we managed to play as a team. So now we have our point,” Khune was quoted as saying by Sport24.
No one perhaps had given Amrinder a chance as well going into ISL2 for ATK. The Season 1 champions had signed Spaniard Juan Calatyud, who played in the La Liga and won the league in Hungary before coming to India, but Singh kept him on the bench. At 22, Singh was also the youngest goalie in ISL2.
“In the time he’s been with us, Amrinder’s become stronger, braver and a better communicator with his backline,” Bhaktawer told HT last November. After the ISL ended, Bhaktawer had said he hoped to work with Singh separately.
That didn’t happen and Singh is likely to join Mumbai City FC after sealing a year’s deal with Bengaluru FC. For the third year, therefore, Bhaktawer will have to work with a fresh set of goalies at ATK who signed Mohun Bagan’s Debjit Majumdar and Shilton Paul this time along with Spaniard Dani Mello. In Jose Molina, they also have a head coach who was a goalkeeper.
‘Unconventional training drills’
Bhaktawer, who played for Orlando Pirates, Chiefs’ biggest rivals in South Africa, is known to use unconventional training drills. Having learnt boxing to improve his build, Bhaktawer gets his trainees to spar to improve footwork.
His goalies have also played badminton to improve reflexes. “The shuttle comes down very fast and you have to be ready and also because you need to arch back to play some shots,” he said in Goa, ahead of the second-leg of the semi-final against FC Goa in ISL1.
Bhaktawer is also seen throwing a rugby ball at shot-stoppers. That too helps improve reflexes because its direction is unpredictable, he said. He uses tennis ball throwdowns for the same reason. “For pre-season, I start by throwing it at them. As they get sharper, I use a racket,” said Bhaktawer.
It was something Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, a former India goalkeeper and Atletico de Kolkata’s man between the posts in ISL1, said had helped. There’s a video clip on Bhaktawer’s twitter timeline that shows him doing the same with South Africa’s goalies for the 2016 Olympics.