After winning their group and progressing to the quarterfinals of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations, South Africa's resolve and talent was put to the test by Mali in Durban on Saturday evening.By the time the contest ended, Bafana Bafana had given their all, but it wasn't quite enough as the Eagles advanced to the semi-finals.
The match was decided from the penalty spot after the sides were level at 1-1 after extra time.
Earlier in the day, Ghana had been made to fight hard for a place in the semi-finals by Cape Verde. The Black Stars won 2-0, with two late goals, the second in the last minute of additional time when Cape Verde's goalkeeper was unluckily caught out at the wrong end of the field, as the islanders sought an equaliser.
Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium was abuzz, swathed in yellow, vuvuzelas blasting, as Bafana Bafana and Mali, ranked 25th in the world, kicked off. The home team had grown in confidence and their performance had improved markedly through the course of their group matches, they clearly believed in coach Gordon Igesund, and they had the majority of the support behind them.
Mali had finished second to Ghana in their group, but had looked composed in doing so, and captain Seydou Keita had shown himself to be one of the best midfielders on the continent. The question was how would they cope with a fired-up home team?
From the start, Bafana Bafana eagerly tried to close down Mali in the midfield, swarming the man on the ball. The tactic helped the South Africans to boss the territorial stakes in the early going.
The first shot in anger, however, came from Keita, who let rip with a left-footed snorter from just outside the South African box. The shot, though, was a little too high and flew harmlessly behind for a goal kick.
A penetrating run by May Mahlangu down the left set up Reneilwe Lesholonyane for a shot, but the Kaizer Chiefs' midfielder failed to pull the trigger. Bafana, though, maintained possession and switched play to attack from the right. Mahlangu got onto the end of an inviting cross, but his header from in front of goal was a glancing one and well wide of the mark.
Adama Tamboura was then called on to make an excellent tackle after Letsholonyane sent Tokelo Rantie free down the middle.
Bafana Bafana looked full of running and were taking the game to the Eagles, but the Malians were soaking it up and trying to counter-attack.
SA effective in midfield
In the 21st minute, Mali's goalkeeper Soumaïla Diakité was called on to save from the feet of Rantie after a lovely weighted pass from Mahlangu played him into the box. Mahlangu, Letsholonyane and Dean Furman were combining effectively in the midfield.
Each time Furman touched the ball, the a rumble arose from the crowd, signaling their approval of the England-based player.
Captain Bongani Khumalo was booked when he brought down Samassa after Mali played a good ball out of defence.
Mali were then forced into a substitution, with Sigamary Diarra coming on for Samba Diakité, who had taken a blow to the head when he and Tshepo Masilela had both vied to header the same ball.
Letsholonyane again played a clever ball to set up Rantie, but his shot was blocked and Bernard Parker's attempt off the rebound was also blocked.
Just before the half-hour, a cross come shot from Tamboura on the left forced Itumeleng Khune to dive to protect his top left-hand corner, but the ball passed narrowly over the South African goal.
Moments later, Bafana Bafana hit the front through Tokelo Rantie. Khune cleared quickly after fielding a free kick and found Mahlangu after two players collided. He picked out Thuso Phala on the left and Phala's cross (or mishit shot) to the centre was met by Rantie, who had an open goal in front of him.
Coach Gordon Igesund jumped to his feat, fist pumping, the crowd roared, South Africans flags waved happily and the hosts celebrated a 1-0 lead.
Modibo Maiga managed a shot on target for Mali, but it was a tame one and Khune, whose distribution throughout the tournament has been first-rate, very nearly caught the Eagles out again with a pinpoint clearance.
Mali were on the back foot and the belief and unity of the South African team was palpable. Igesund was animated as he directed his players from the sideline.
With six minutes to go to the break, goal scorer Tokelo Rantie, who was limping after taking a knock, was booked by the referee for time wasting. He was replaced by Lehlohonolo Majoro shortly after that.
Mali were beginning to show more urgency on the attack and play had started to take place in the South African half. Fousseyni Diawara made a good run down the right and picked out Samba Sow on the top of the box, completely unmarked. Fortunately for the home team, Sow skied his shot.
On 45 minutes, Keita picked out Diawarra on the left. He cut inside and fired off a shot, but Furman managed to head the goal-bound effort away.
The teams turned with South Africa one goal to the good.
Bafana Bafana began the second half as they had the first, pressing and taking the game into the Eagles' territory. A promising move came to nought, however, when Tamboura nipped the ball off Mahlangu's foot. The defender and South African winger Thuso Phala were having a superb end to end battle down the flank.
Mahamane Traore was brought on 10 minutes into the half, with Mohammed Sissoko making way for him, as Mali sought an equaliser.
Letsholonyane then picked out his club team-mate Lehonololoo Majoro with a defence-splitting pass, but the striker, under pressure from two covering defenders was unable to get off a shot.
In the 58th minute, Mali drew level. After a good run into space, Samba Sow, who had been very average until that point, found Keita on the edge of the six-yard box with a teasing cross from the left and Keita buried the opportunity as three South African defenders were caught out watching the ball. Most of the crowd threw their hands to their heads, the Eagles' fans jumped for joy.
Khune was called on to keep South Africa in the game a couple of minutes later when a poor back pass from Siboniso Gaxa fell short of Siyabonga Sangweni. Mahamadou Samassa raced onto the ball and tried to side-foot a shot past the goalkeeper, but Khune blocked his shot.
Buoyed by their goal, Mali were taking the game to Bafana Bafana. They were enjoying more possession in the midfield and the home support had quietened.
Sow became the first player from Mali to be booked in the 69th minute for a nasty studs-up challenge on Bernard Parker. South Africa didn't make much of a fuss about it, but similar challenges have seen players dismissed.
The game meandered a little, but it was noticeable that the Malian players, especially on defence, were closing down South Africa more quickly than they had earlier in the match.
In the 80th minute, Diakite was called on to save a powerful drive from Mahlangu, who had provided some penetration down the left flank, finding Majoro before receiving a return pass. Parker then narrowly missed Letsholonyane with a cross from the left.
Three minutes from full time, Cheick Diabate came on for Mahamadou Samassa. The match was drawing towards extra time. On the South African side, Thulani Serero took over from Thuso Phala.
After four minutes of additional time, the referee blew his whistle and the contest was headed for extra time.
Sangweni picked up Majoro in the Malian box in the first minute of extra time, but the striker struggled to control the high ball and went down under the challenge of a defender. The referee was having none of that and booked the striker for diving.
Khune was then called on to fist the ball behind for a corner after Keita delivered a nasty, swinging free kick. Mahlangu responded with a low shot on the Mali goal.
Feeling the toll
The crowd was muted, both sets of fans willing another breakthrough for their teams. Both sets of players were clearly feeling the toll of extra time.
With the first 15 minutes almost up, Parker went down with an ankle injury and Siphiwe Tshabalala replaced him shortly after that. The teams then changed sides. Another 15 minutes awaited the weary combatants.
Masilela was shown a yellow card for protesting when the referee told him to leave the field to get a new shirt. The defender had taken a shot to the nose and blood now marked his shirt.
When Mali surged onto the attack, it appeared that the entire Bafana Bafana team was back to block and clear a shot on goal.
Mahamane Traore then followed Masilela into the referee's book after a very high, studs-up challenge that grazed Serero's head. Tshabalala was given the opportunity to shoot at goal from the free kick, but his curling shot was woefully high.
With the Eagles pushing hard for a winner, Maiga had a shot blocked by Khumalo and Traore's shot was deflected, allowing Khune time to run out and gather the ball.
Only minutes remained when Letsholonyane, who had played a fine game, was stretchered off, leaving Bafana Bafana with only 10 men. More than anything, he looked absolutely spent from the physical effort he had put in. Moments later, however, he was ready to return to action.
When the final whistle sounded, the clock read 23:06 and there was still further drama to come.
Khune and Diakite shook hands before the first penalty, to be taken by Siphiwe Tshabalala, who shot low to Diakite's right. The keeper had guessed left and South Africa led 1-0 from the spot.
Cheick Diabate was up next for Mali. He raced in, then slowed, sending Khune diving to his right and the ball to the left. 1-1.
Dean Furman took the next kick. He fired to the keeper's right. Diakite dived and parried the ball away with his left hand. Advantage Mali.
Tamboura then shot to the keeper's left hand corner. Khune guessed correctly, but couldn't quite get there.
May Mahlangu went low right for South Africa, but Diakite got down low to save and Mali had a chance to go 3-1 up.
Traore made it happen with a shot high into the net. Bafana Bafana's Lehlolonolo Majoro had to score with the next kick.
He didn't, firing wide of the goal to Diakite's left. Mali were through to the semi-finals and South Africa out.
The Malian players gathered together and kissed the ground. Bafana's players slumped to the ground. Their supporters looked on disbelieving. The dream was over. The clock read 23:22.