Durban — Hosts South Africa were bundled out of the African Nations Cup in Durban on Saturday in a heart-breaking setback for the tournament when they lost 3-1 on penalties to Mali.
The shootout followed a 1-1 draw after extra time in a game during which South Africa started strongly but in the end let slip a one-goal advantage and the game.
Two hours of football in energy-sapping humidity failed to produce a winner, leaving the lottery of penalty kicks to decide the semi-final place on offer. Mali proved their mental fortitude, converting all three of their kicks, while South Africa squandered three chances and went tumbling out.
It could have been so different had Bafana Bafana managed to hold onto the dominance they enjoyed through the first half and keep up the lead after Tokelo Rantie scored in the 31st minute. It was perhaps a fortunate goal, but no less than the side deserved after a bright start.
Referee Alioum from Cameroon allowed play to continue after a clash of heads in the midfield that looked serious enough for him to stop the game, which he has to do in case of potential head injury. Instead he allowed May Mahlangu to surge forward, set up Thuso Phala on the left for a cross that Rantie had just to tap in at the back post. The goal reflected their dominance as Bafana Bafana set a high tempo.
But it all unravelled 13 minutes into the second half when a defensive lapse allowed an equaliser in similar circumstances for Mali.
This time it was Samba Sow given space to drive the ball out of midfield, pass to Mahamadou Samassa on the left, who provided a cross for the talismanic Seydou Keita to head home. South Africa's defence were all caught ball watching as Keita worked himself free to head home from point blank range, giving Itumeleng Khune in the Bafana goal no chance.
Mali and South Africa then traded long-range blows through the next hour, looking increasingly tired as the game headed to the inevitable lottery..
Mali kept their heads in the post-match shootout, their goalkeeper Soumbelya Diakite again proving the hero, just as he had been one year ago in Gabon when he also made vital saves in the post-match shootout in which Mali eliminated the hosts from those quarter-finals..
Having won at this stage twice in successive tournaments now, Mali await their semi-final opponent. They meet either Cote d'Ivoire or Nigeria in Durban on Wednesday.