DURBAN, South Africa, February 3 – Mali played party poopers in the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals for the second time within a year as they defeated South Africa 3-1 on penalties Saturday.
A tense match of few scoring chances had ended 1-1 after extra time with Tokelo Rantie putting Bafana Bafana (The Boys) ahead on 31 minutes and Seydou Keita levelling with 58 minutes gone.
Cheick Tidiane Diabate, Adama Tamboura and Mahamane Traore converted shootout kicks for the Malian Eagles while Soumbeyla Diakite saved from Dean Furman and May Mahlangu and Lehlohonolo Majoro blazed wide.
Mali knocked out co-hosts Gabon at the same stage of the 2012 tournament — also after a shootout following a 1-1 draw — and have now reached the semi-finals six times in eight appearances.
Success was a timely morale boost for Malians, whose troops have been been on the offensive against Islamist extremists in the north of the country, backed by forces from France and other African states.
“My boys lost with dignity, pride and passion,” said South Africa coach Gordon Igesund, who was close to tears during the post-match media conference.
“There is only so much any coach can ask from his team and my boys gave everything they had. It is very difficult to accept defeat when you play so well.
“Congratulations to Mali for winning a tough game for both teams,” he said of the west Africans, who stay in this Indian Ocean city to face Ivory Coast or Nigeria next Wednesday for a final place.
South Africa made two changes and Mali one from the teams that clinched qualification for the knockout phase with draws against Morocco and the Democratic Republic of Congo respectively in final group games.
Siboniso Gaxa replaced suspended Anele Ngcongca at right-back for South Africa and Igesund preferrred midfielder Reneilwe Letsholonyane to injury-prone striker Katlego Mphela in a 4-5-1 formation.
France-born Mali coach Patrice Carteron also had to make an enforced change with goalkeeper Diakite coming in for banned Mamadou Samassa, who picked up two cautions in the three-match pool phase.
This was only the second Cup of Nations meeting between the countries with hosts Mali overcoming South Africa 2-0 in a 2002 quarter-final that featured then-rising star Keita.
South Africa trooped off the field at half-time with a deserved 1-0 lead before a capacity 60,000 crowd at Moses Mabhida Stadium in this Indian Ocean city thanks to a goal on 31 minutes from lone striker Rantie.
Mahlangu pounced on the Malian clearance of a long kick from goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, drove forward and passed to Thuso Phala, whose cross left unmarked Rantie with the simple task of tapping the ball into the net.
It was a mixed opening half for the Sweden-based scorer as an early run into space produced a shot superbly smothered by Diakite, but he was yellow carded on 40 minutes and had to go off injured before half-time.
Mali did not figure much as an attacking force, bar a sizzling edge-of-box shot from former Barcelona midfielder Keita that flew over, but reminded Bafana Bafana (The Boys) of the power in his left boot.
Wide midfielder Samba Diakite, a reluctant participant as he wanted to help the relegation struggle of English Premier League outfit Queens Park Rangers, retired injured midway through the first half with Sigamary Diarra coming on.
The cagey nature of the game continued into the second half until 33-year-old Keita stunned the crowd on 58 minutes with a close-range header from a Mahamadou Samassa cross that entered the net off the right elbow of Itumeleng Khune.
South African nerves were frayed and they almost gifted the visitors a second goal soon after when Samassa intercepted an under-cooked back-pass from Gaxa and Khune had to dash off his line and make a brave block.