For the second Cup of Nations in a row, Mali progress to the semifinals after eliminating the host nation on penalties. While Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s tears sparked a thousand images in 2012, this time around it is South Africa who endure insufferable heartache in front of their own supporters.
In the early stages, it seemed almost unthinkable that South Africa would capitulate. They began as they had done in their last two group games, proactive and energetic, rather than the hapless bunch who flopped against Cape Verde in the tournament opener.
Mali, in contrast, were lethargic and laborious, struggling to find a tempo to their passing game and looking to be heading toward the exit door.
Their future looked to be sealed when Tokelo Rantie put the hosts ahead just after the hour mark. At this point, with Bafana in the ascendancy and controlling every kick, the West Africans looked devoid of ideas.
The opening goal was worth a mention: Khune, brave and often imperious in the South African net, claimed a cross before kicking the ball forward and prompting an incisive and almost decisive counterattack.
The home side nearly doubled its lead in the second half, with Lehlohonolo Majoro failing to get a shot off when played through.
Moments later, the South Africans paid for their profligacy, with lax defending allowing Malian captain and talisman Seydou Keita to ghost in and level the game with a header from point-blank range.
From then on, the game struggled to spark once more, both sides aware of the consequences of conceding once again—South African confidence dented after conceding, and Mali content just to be back on even terms.
A penalty shootout soon felt inevitable, as the tension within Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium mounted to reflect the anticipated drama of the occasion.
Despite a bold early finish from Siphiwe Tshabalala, who entered the fray as a substitute for Bernard Parker in extra time, it was the hosts who capitulated first under pressure—Majoro’s penalty, blazed into the crowd, came after Diakité had saved from Oldham’s Dean Furman and May Mahlangu.
Whilst international tournaments can often lost their verve and charm when the hosts are eliminated, Bafana Bafana can take some solace from their unfancied team battling their way out of the group, providing memorable moments along the way.
Few expected anything of the side, and for them to progress from the disappointment of the opening fixture is a relief, if not a point of celebration.
Few of the world’s nations are as beleaguered as Mali right now, and their victory and Afcon progression have the potential to unite and nourish a population becoming accustomed to the most devastating of tragedies.
They will advance to contest a semifinal with either Nigeria or Cote d’Ivoire.