at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Durban – An evening of unbearable tension ended in desperate disappointment for Bafana Bafana on Saturday night, knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations in that most horrible way possible.
The penalty shoot-out is a nasty way to lose any game, and though Bafana did make a total hash of their spot-kicks, Gordon Igesund’s men can hold their heads high as they battled Mali right to the death in the battle for a semi-final place, and gave a brave display overall in their home tournament.
In the end, Dean Furman and May Mahlangu’s penalties were saved by Mali ’keeper Soumalia Diakite, while Lehlohonolo Majoro blazed his effort wide, sending most of the Moses Mabhida Stadium into total silence. Mali coach Patrice Carteron had noted beforehand that his ’keeper was a penalty shoot-out specialist, helping Mali to knock out hosts Gabon on spot-kicks in the Afcon 2012 quarterfinal.
And so history repeated itself.
Bafana were made to pay for not making the most of a dominant opening period, Seydou Keita equalising with a rare opportunity for the visitors in the second half.
It wasn’t the most aesthetic encounter, but the tension made up for that, a nation holding its collective breath for much of the second half and beyond. There was the odd bout of “Shosholoza” in the stadium, but mostly it was a frantic blow on the vuvuzela, and a quiet prayer.
Bafana went into their own group prayer before the shoot-out started, showing their unity to the bitter end. And bitter it was.
Gordon Igesund surprised again with his line-up, fielding neither Katlego Mphela nor Majoro in attack. Instead, Reneilwe Letsholonyane was brought in as an extra central midfielder, with Tokelo Rantie left to lead the attack.
Carteron, meanwhile, made just one enforced change from the Eagles’ draw with the DR Congo, goalkeeper Diakite coming in for the suspended Mamadou Samassa.
The teams were welcomed onto the field by an orchestra of vuvuzelas, followed by a hair-raising rendition of the national anthem. The noise inside the stadium was gargantuan, and Bafana responded by meeting the physical challenge of Mali from the off.
Mahlangu, Furman and Letsholonyane scampered after the ball in midfield, and Igesund’s side got into a couple of bright early positions, Bernard Parker slightly mis-hitting one effort.
Siboniso Gaxa, in the side for the suspended Anele Ngcongca, provided the first decent cross of the match, his fizzing delivery headed well wide by Mahlangu.
Mahlangu then turned provider just after the 20-minute mark, laying a lovely through ball for Rantie, whose shot was blocked by the onrushing Diakite.
Mali were dealt a blow when one of their midfield energisers was forced off, Samba Diakite picking up an injury and replaced by Sigamary Diarra.
And it was Bafana who soon sent Moses Mabhida stadium into an electric frenzy. Khune came out brilliantly to take a Mali free kick, and hit a raking pass towards Parker, who dived at the ball, and collided with Mali centre back Adama Coulibaly.
With both players lying on the ground, Bafana played on, and Mahlangu burst into the box, his cross deflecting to Rantie at the back post, who tapped in.
But Mali then found a way back in. Bafana were, for once, caught sleeping at the back, with Gaxa caught out of position, and Samassa crossed for Keita, whose close range header was too strong for Khune.
Into another half hour we went, and Majoro was booked for a blatant dive in the penalty area. Khune then just about got a Keita free kick away for a corner, before Mahlangu surged onto substiute Serero’s pass and drilled a shot straight at Diakite.
Bafana were clearly tiring, but continued to be nothing but brave, Khumalo hurling himself to block a shot from Traore. In the end, it was not enough, but the team have done a nation proud. – Sunday Independent