After the euphoria, the reckoning that greeted South Africa's progress to the quarter-final of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations has died down, the Bafana Bafana are now faced with the reality of the tournament as they take on the Eagles of Mali in the first quarter final match today.
Wonderfully dramatic as their qualification for the second round was, Gordon Igesund is far too astute a coach not to realise his team needs radical improvement if they must progress to next round and challenge for the title.
The character of his side is not in doubt because to come back after the dismal opening draw against debutant, Cape Verde and overcome Angola so easily was highly impressive. All to have mental strengthen after conceding the second goal against Morocco to force an equaliser against the North Africans was something else. This, perhaps, showed how potent home advantage can be for a team because without a packed stadium urging them forward they wouldn't have found that mental strength.
The South Africans came through Group A as top dogs with one win and two draws. Bafana's key result came in their second game, a 2-0 win over Angola which afforded them some breathing space. Needing just a draw against Morocco to clinch a place in the last eight, Bafana twice came from behind to eventually finish level at 2-2 although the fact goalkeeper Khune was widely acknowledged as the man of the match illustrates that the task was completed with some difficulty. Still, Gordon Igesund has the momentum he needed and Bafana are in the knockout stages of the AFCON finals for the first time since 2002.
The 2002 finals were hosted in Mali, today's match opponents who won 2-0 to send Bafana Bafana home. Mali came through Group B finishing runners up to Ghana. They won their first game 1-0 with a late goal to get the better of eventual group whipping boys Niger but a subsequent 1-0 defeat to Ghana left them needing to avoid defeat against DRC in their final group match.
They fell behind to DRC inside the first minute but were quickly level and that was the way it finished. Turning back the clock 12 months to the AFCON 2012 finals, Mali also came through their group as runners up to the Black Stars. They went on to beat co-hosts Gabon Captain Seydou Keita has even offered paying some of the money himself.
After progressing to the quarter-finals Keita said there could still be a problem over extra payments for players if they reached the semi-finals by beating host South Africa today. But the former Barcelona midfielder said he would help if it was needed, and stressed Mali's attempt to succeed at the African Cup and win a first ever title to bring some joy to its troubled homeland was "not about money."
"You cannot imagine how moved and happy I am to be here today and be able to play a match that will bring joy to my country," Keita said after Mali's 1-1 draw with Congo saw it reach the least eight. "This is priceless. Money doesn't matter in such moments."
Mali has twice entered the cup with problems back home. At last year's tournament, Keita appealed for peace in Mali as a military coup unfolded while the team was playing in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. There, Mali made the semi-finals and eventually finished third for one of its best results.
This time, a French-led military intervention against Islamic extremists in their homeland has hung over the team's 2013 campaign.
With this in mind, Keita said his squad had made an effort" to reduce their bonus payments. "There might still be some disagreement over the bonuses for the semi-finals, but we said we will work it out," he said. "I, myself, actually told the (sports) minister that if we made it to the semifinals and that there was still a disagreement over the bonuses, I could myself contribute to these bonuses."
To achieve his heart desire of reaching the semi-final, Kaita's Malian side will have to fight hard to be able overcome Bafana Bafana and their 50,000 vuvuzela-blowing home fans.
Ghana Take On Cape Verde
The second quarter finals of the AFCON 2013 will see the Black stars of Ghana take on Cape Verde Islands at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth today. The Black Stars topped Group B with seven points from three matches. After their first game that saw them let a 2-0 lead slip to draw 2-2 with DRC, they have gone through the gears to beat Mali 1-0 and Niger 3-0.
Their six goals have been scored by six different players which suggested that some of the big names absent from the squad are not being missed. There are similar parallels with their AFCON 2012 campaign where Ghana also topped their group with seven points but they were made to sweat in the last eight, eventually edging out Tunisia 2-1 in extra time.
Cape Verde are undoubtedly the surprise package of His finals and their magnificent achievement in reaching the quarter finals is unarguably the story of the tournament so far. After holding host South Africa to a 0-0 draw in their opening game, they went on to draw with Morocco (1-1) and then came back with two late goals to see off Angola (2-1) to go through as runners up behind the host nation.
The wild celebrations that greeted the final whistle in the Angola game will leave a lasting memory in the championship. The Blue Sharks since under their new coach have done really well and won a whole host of admirers. Taking the scalp of Cameroon in qualifying for this tournament with a 3-1 aggregate win is their biggest victory to date, but that would certainly be eclipsed if they turn Ghana over today.
Ghana have the advantage of having played all of their group matches at this stadium, but Cape Verde's win over Angola was also staged at today game's venue which will stand them in good stead. As far as head to head are concerned, the teams met in Lisbon in a friendly international in November last year which Ghana won 1-0.
They were previously paired together in the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup and Ghana won 2-0 at home and 4-0 away ,but the Blue Sharks are clearly a different proposition these days.