Durban - The taste of defeat has become all too familiar to Bafana Bafana tongues for over a decade now, but this city at least awoke on Sunday to glorious sunshine and a sense of glorious failure as South Africa’s bid for the Africa Cup of Nations came to a heroic end.
The South African Football Association mandated Gordon Igesund to reach the semifinals of this tournament, and Igesund himself talked up their ability to win on home soil, just like the class of 1996.
And yet the realities of where South Africa are on the continental footballing map do not match such ambitions. A quarterfinal exit on penalty kicks to Mali, the third-best team on the continent, for a side that had, until they beat Angola, not won a game at a Nations Cup finals for nine years, or qualified for the previous two editions, represents ample progress.
Furthermore, setting aside a nervous and apathetic tournament opener against Cape Verde, Igesund’s team pounded every blade of turf for their country and their coach, no more so than at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on a sultry Saturday evening.
There was blood, quite literally, pouring from Tsepo Masilela’s nose, there was sweat, and, in the end, there were tears as the penalty shootout went so badly wrong.
For decent periods of this quarterfinal, Bafana outplayed Mali, keeping possession well and hassling and harrying Seydou Keita into a tetchy mood, putting paid to the theory that Mali’s power would batter Bafana off the pitch.
Nowhere more so was this represented than Keita’s territory, in the centre of the pitch. Igesund reinforced his midfield, bringing in Reneilwe Letsholonyane alongside Dean Furman, and the pair were a picture of controlled aggression, constantly winning the ball and enabling May Mahlangu, just in front of them, to hurtle at the Eagles defence.
Tokelo Rantie’s goal sent an already fervent home crowd into an electric frenzy, and it seemed Mali might just be powered off the pitch. And yet the Eagles slowly worked their way back into the game, Keita ghosting in as he has done so many times over the years to head in an equaliser just before the hour mark.
Bafana kept scrapping, but in the shootout, it was the visitors who kept their cool, goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite the hero, just as he was last year, when Mali knocked out Afcon hosts Gabon in the last-eight.
Diakite saved penalties from Furman and Mahlangu, a fate that probably Bafana’s best two players at this tournament simply didn’t deserve.
“I was confident, I had practised throughout the week. I picked my spot, I knew where I wanted to put it and I did,” said Furman afterwards.
“The goalkeeper has guessed right and made the save, credit to him. I can’t hide my disappointment right now.”
Furman described the side as “devastated”, but also found time to highlight the positives.
“In the first half, we were outstanding, I felt we could have been more than one up,” he said. “In extra time, we dug deep, at times with 10 men (Masilela and Letsholonyane were both forced off temporarily with injuries). We really showed fighting spirit and we can take that forward as a team.
“It was incredible to hear the support and play in front of packed stadiums. At the moment we are devastated, but we have to pick ourselves up and take the positives, and look forward to the next chapter.”
That next chapter is 2014 World Cup qualification, continuing with a home game against the Central African Republic on the 23rd or the 24th of March. Bafana picked up just two points from their opening two qualifiers before Igesund came into the job, leaving the coach with an even more tricky task to match the second part of his Safa mandate. But after this performance, there is, at least, a little more hope.
“I am personally looking forward to the qualifiers,” added Letsholonyane, another man to do his reputation no harm at this tournament.
“We have done well as a team, at our first tournament playing together. We have set a foundation, and there are more young players here too, so I think the future is bright.”
Igesund seconded that saying Bafana Bafana could only go forward and build on these performances.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but strides have been made and we can match anyone. Mali are ranked third in Africa. We matched and dominated them for long periods. The way we played, we can only go forward. The World Cup will be a tough task, but this performance showed a big improvement in attitude. We’re playing exciting football and its disappointing to lose on a penalty shoot-out, but I’m sure we’ll go forward from here,” said Igesund.
On top of finishing the competition unbeaten through open play, Igesund draws hope from the character his side displayed.
“It was a tough game for both sides and we dominated in areas. We lost with pride, dignity and passion. As a coach you can only get so much out of a team. If ever we had to lose a game, then against Mali we lost with pride and dignity. The players gave their all. The performance was such that you don’t want to lose when you play that well,” the coach said.
“One of the biggest things we can take away is that the quality of teams was very good, and in a short space of time we showed we can match anybody. Without doubt we’ll get better and better, and with more time to work as a team we’ll get stronger. Overall the competition was fantastic. We made huge strides and got better as the tournament went on. It was a tough ask from the beginning and we made improvements.
“There was passion, commitment and pride from this new team every time they put their jerseys on, and the average age is about 26 years. I’m disappointed, but we’ve got a bright future,” Igesund said.