Nelspruit — South Africa coach Gordon Igesund last night hailed his players and the Durban crowd as Bafana Bafana reached the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002. Igesund's side drew 2-2 with Morocco at the Moses Mabhida stadium to finish top of Group A. Morocco were eliminated.
"Obviously we feel very proud," says 56-year-old Igesund. "We've achieved our first objective and now we have to prepare for the next game. I'm proud of the players and proud of the people in the stadium. Without their support, I'm sure we wouldn't have been able to come back. They lifted the players to come back on two occasions and we feel very good about that."
Morocco, who needed victory to be sure of qualification, attacked from the outset and were rewarded for their tactics when Issam El Adoua headed in after 10 minutes.
South Africa failed to respond to the challenge and were thankful for wasteful finishing by Moroccan forwards. The most notable example was Youssef El Arabi's miss just after half-time when one-on-one with South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune.
Twenty minutes later, May Mahlangu rekindled the passion in the stadium with a shot into the top right hand corner. Morocco regained controlled when Abdelilah Hafidi punished poor defending, nine minutes from time.
But for the second time in as many games, defender Siyabonga Sangweni hit the target, showing a striker's composure with a classy curler from 20 metres.
Khune, who received the man-of-the-match accolade, concurred with his coach: "Morocco were unfortunate. The crowd played a major role in the draw. I must thank the people who came out in numbers and filled up the stadium."
In the days preceding the quarter-final, South Africa will have to reconfigure their defensive shapes. Too often they were pierced by the incisive Moroccan midfield combinations.
Dean Furman, who orchestrated South Africa 's victory over Angola with his forward distribution, was forced into defensive duties and unable to launch attacks.
"It was a different game to the Angola match. We knew they were going to throw everything at us," says Furman. "We showed great strength. It shows another quality of the squad, that we could come from behind twice and show that fight. In the last few minutes, as they threw everything at us, we put bodies on the line, we headed everything away, cleared everything away, they had nothing to lose. We're delighted with the result."
Topping the group means that the hosts will remain in Durban which is considered a stronghold. Furman adds: "We wanted to stay in Durban . We're very settled here, the support has been incredible. The fans really got behind us against Morocco and we felt them behind us. All the boys in the team wanted to stay in Durban and it means that we won't have a day travelling which can take a bit of a toll on the body."
Sunday offered up a double celebration for 24-year-old Furman. His English 3rd division side Oldham Athletic provided the shock of the FA Cup 4th round by beating Liverpool 3-2.
Furman adds: "I couldn't be happier. That result and this one here in South Africa are both incredible. I called my mate Matt Smith from the changing room to congratulate him on his two goals against Liverpool. He said he feels like he's dreaming."
South Africa are still some distance from their own cup nirvana. To reach such transcendant states, they'll need to display more grit and guile in the back line.
Other strikers won't be as profligate as the Moroccans. But until at least 3 February, South Africans can muse on glory. The euphoria of 1996 is in sight.