Yaya Touré may still be the best player in this tournament, but contrary to what was written in this space at the Cup of Nations’ onset, the second-best player in this competition may not be Ivorian. While Didier Drogba may yet live up to his reputation in the knockout round (and he did have a goal in the final group game), he has not been able to match Malian Seydou Keita, another Europe-based player who made the move to China last summer.
On Saturday, Keita gave his third Man of the Match performance of the tournament, scoring a tying goal in the 58th minute that ultimately allowed his team to take the host nation to penalty kicks. There, three failed conversations from South Africa put Mali into the semifinals, 3-1 on kicks after a 1-1 result.
The Bafana Bafana came out the stronger side and executed a near-perfect counter in the for Tokelo Rantie’s 31st minute opener. Shortly after half, Keita pulled Mali even after he headed home a Mamadou Samassa cross from just in front of the goal. A practically even final hour played out with Mali havin the better chances. South Africa head coach Gordon Igesund was late to put in players like Lehlohonolo Majoro and Siphiwe Tshabalala – player who could provide a bit of creativity or dynamism.
The shootout started with both teams scoring before South Africans Dean Furman and May Mahlangu failed to convert. Malians Adama Tamboura and Mahamane Traoré gave their side a 3-1 lead going into the fourth round of kicks. Lehlohonolo Majoro went well wide with South Africa’s final kick, seeing the hosts out of the tournament.
Despite the defeat, the effort was one of redemption for a team that can fallen so far since 2010. One of the lowest rated teams in the tournament, South Africa wasn’t expected to challenge any serious contenders, yet in closing group play with wins over Angola and Morocco, the hosts showed more fight than many had predicted. Their first half of play on Saturday validated their place in the quarterfinals, even if that’s as far as they got.
Mali, in the interim, wait for the winner of tomorrow’s Cote d’Ivoire-Nigeria winner. Should Les Elephants advance, their win would set up a rematch a 2012 semifinal won by the Ivorians, 1-0.