Bafana Bafana crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday night with their heads held high after losing 4-2 in a semi-final penalty shoot-out to Nigeria.
Bafana had shown grit during regulation and extra time as they came back from behind through Teboho Mokoena’s penalty to cancel out William Troost-Ekong’s spot-kick.
But it was in the penalty shoot-out where the Super Eagles prevailed as they slotted in four against Bafana’s two to play in the ultimate footballing match in Africa – thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali.
While this loss meant Bafana will now contest for a third-place finish for the first time in 26 years against DR Congo or hosts Ivory Coast on Saturday night, they’ll still be proud of their exploits.
Bafana were barely tipped to reach this stage of the competition by most of their partisan fans, given their previous form at Afcon and recent shortcomings.
But such was their tenacity, they both punched above their weight to ensure they were part of the last four teams from the 24 participants that remained in the tournament.
Sure, this match was played at Peace Stadium, but this was no ordinary semi-final, with the two teams having forged a fierce rivalry over the years.
Bafana had never beaten the Super Eagles in three matches at Afcon, including the 2000 semi-final, which were hosted by the Nigerians and Ghana.
And with this Bafana’s first return to the penultimate game of the continental showpiece, it’s safe to say the Super Eagles will embrace the victory.
But while the statistics were there for all to see, the two coaches – South Africa’s Hugo Broos and Nigeria’s Jose Peseiro – still had to adopt winning tactics.
It was Peseiro that came out victorious in the end, but the two men gave their best in formation and tactics in their starting line-ups.
Broos made one change to his last four consecutive sides, introducing Siyanda Xulu for Thapelo Morena in defence as he shifted to a more defensive approach.
That was probably the right way to go from the silver-haired Belgian, especially after Nigeria’s dangerman Victor Osimhen passed a late fitness test.
Osimhen didn’t trouble Bafana’s defence for the better part of the first half, with his only attempt at goal coming via a late header that sailed wide of Ronwen Williams’ goals.
The Bafana hero in the quarter-final had a busy start to the first half, having tipped away Ola Aina’s curling effort after Nigeria imposed a strong attack.
But soon after Williams’ save, South Africa turned the tide, causing trouble for Williams’ counterpart Nwabali, who also came into this match with four clean sheets.
Sphephelo Sithole was the first to test Nwabali, the Tondela midfielder having hit a timid curling effort that was comfortably saved by the Chippa United No 1.
But as Bafana grew in confidence, they started to find loopholes in Nigeria’s back four, such that Percy Tau formed a one-on-one duel with Nwabali.
Tau hit a hard and low shot which was saved by Nwabali, before his first touch let him down as the ball came off his thigh and rolled towards a lively Nwabali.
The Nigeria goalie duly earned his pay cheque in the first half after parrying Evidence Makgopa’s curling effort from close range after a Tau set-up.
Nigeria started the second half on a high, with Osimhen coming out of his shell to justify why he had most Nigerian fans worried when he was a doubt for the match.
The African Footballer of the Year duly earned his reward, winning Nigeria’s penalty in the 65th minute after being fouled by Mothobi Mvala inside the box.
Troost-Ekong, who had scored the winner for the Super Eagles in the 2019 quarter-final, stepped up and hit a hard and low shot that rolled under the diving Williams.
Bafana upped the ante after going behind, and they nearly drew level after Makgopa turned and hit a bullet, curling grass-cutter that sailed inches wide.
Moments later, VAR overturned Osimhen’s tap-in goal and awarded Bafana a penalty after monitor reviews showed that Tau was fouled inside the box.
Mokoena slotted home the chance from 18 yards, and could have won the game for Bafana after his stoppage time set-piece was parried into the path of Khuliso Mudau by Nwabali.
But Mudau blasted the rebound over the crossbar as the match ended level in regulation time and headed into extra time, where Williams made the first save.
The SA goalkeeper kept his team in the game for the duration of extra time, and had to be extra sharp in the last few minutes after Grant Kekana received a late red card after taking one for the team.
But it was the Super Eagles’ Nwabali that kept his cool in the shoot-out as he saved two penalties to ensure the Super Eagles won 4-2.