3 February 2013

South Africa/Mali: Heartbreak As South Africa Bows Out, Mali Advances

There was heartbreak as hosts, South Africa were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations by Mali on penalties at the Moses Mabhida on Saturday night.

This tournament had been a romance story for South Africa. Mali will proceed to the semi-finals of the tournament. South Africa might have lost, but they won hearts. They fought hard. They gave their all during this tournament and, they came agonisingly close to an encounter with destiny.

The match had to go to penalties after 120 minutes of football couldn't decide a winner. The fulltime score was 1-1.

This was a night when only football should have been declared the winner. So much skill, so much passion, so much guts and sweat from both teams.

If purpose inspires a team to rise even when their backs are against the wall, the Malians have seemingly found a worthy cause that spurs them. Throughout the week, they spoke of the unrest back home - they underscore the significance of using football to bring joy to their people. For over 50 minutes at the Moses Mabhida, their journey in this tournament was in tatters. But as he has done before on several times, Seydou Keita put his hand up to provide leadership.

While the first half had been monopolised by the hosts, the balance of power shifted in the second half in favour of Mali. In patches, this match might have had quiet moments but to the trained eye, it was textbook football from sides with contrasting styles of play.

In the first half, the South Africans looked comfortable on the ball - they knocked the ball around with confidence and pace. Instead of trying to match Mali's physical domination, they relied on speed and skill in the engine room - something that unsettled the Malians.

However, it was Mali who took the first shot at goal when captain, Seydou Keita tried to beat South Africa keeper, Itumeleng Khune from a distance, but his shot sailed over the crossbar.

Five minutes later, South Africa responded. Siboni Gaxa telegraphed a beautiful cross from right flank, but May Mahlangu couldn't direct his header towards the goal. This was from an impressive build-up from the South Africans.

On the 21st mminute, Bafana's Tokelo Rantie was released by an accurate pass by Mahlangu, but the Bafana striker hurried and when he needed to spoon the ball over the keeper, he blasted the ball at Diakite.

South Africa's persistency was rewarded on the 31stminute when a combination between Mahlangu and Thuso Phalo set up Rantie who beat Diakite to put South Africa ahead. To their credit, South Africa had tried the move that resulted to a goal several times on the match - it was clear that it was something that had been drilled into them at training.

If Mali was going to rely on brute power, the hosts were banking on counter attacks and sublime passing game.

On the 57thminute, Keita equalised with a header to the far post. There was nothing Khune could have done about that moment. South Africa's defence was caught in a moment of indecisiveness. There were three yellow jerseys in the box, but Keita's header was unchallenged. The centre back had been South Africa's Achilles heels before - only to be saved by the brilliant Khune on previous occasions.

Two minutes after the Mali goal, Khune pulled another save denying Mahmadou Samassa on a one-on-one moment.

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