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Curtain closes for Bafana as they bow out of AFCON with pride

South African supporters are still shell-shocked after the painful loss to Nigeria that saw them crash out of the Africa Cup Of Nations (AFCON) on Wednesday night. Bitter sweet are the first words that come to mind when describing the game that ended the dreams of a nation.

Leading up to the clash at the Stade de la Paix in Ivory coast, tension built around the game, in a fixture that was widely viewed as ‘more than just about football’.

As the national anthems of both teams sounded, the anxiety in the stadium settled in, as familiar foes came face to face once again in an all or nothing semi final. Bafana coach Hugo Broos, approached the game with key tactical changes set to counter the attacking prowess of the Super Eagles.

He rejected the usual 4-2-3-1 formation Bafana have used for the entirety of the tournament, opting for a 5-4-1 structure in hope for solidity in the back line. The addition of Siyanda Xulu to the defense offered Bafana much needed experience, forming a trio of center backs.

The Super Eagles entered the game as heavy favourites, boasting an attacking line led by reigning African Player Of The Year and Napoli forward, Victor Osimhen. In addition, they have a star studded team with multiple players that feature for top European clubs. Despite the gulf in quality between the two teams, the first half showed that none of that mattered. Bafana displayed the stubborn never say die attitude that has gotten them this far in the tournament, creating multiple chances that could have dictated the outcome of the game.

Bafana dominated the first half, with more shots at goal than the opposition. An exciting first 45 minutes from Broos’ men made the game uncomfortable for the Nigerians, with both Bafana forwards Percy Tau and Evidence Makgopa, on the receiving end of bad fortune when it came to converting their chances. Bafana supporters were left with hope at the conclusion of the half, but they knew that if they were to emerge as victors, big chances had to be put away.

The beginning of the second half saw the Super Eagles bring the boiling South Africans to a simmer. They came out the tunnel thirsty for blood, keeping Bafana captain and goalkeeper, Ronwen Williams, on his toes for the opening 20 minutes of the half.

In the 65th minute, a moment of individual brilliance from Nigerian star, Victor Osimhen, earned him a penalty as he was brought down by Mothobi Mvala in the 18 yard area. Egyptian referee, Amin Mohamed Omar, did not hesitate, he immediately pointed to the spot, and the fans in green and white roared in joy. The Super Eagles captain, William Troost-Ekong stepped up to the spot and dispatched the spot kick with ease, giving Nigeria a 1-0 lead.

Throughout the second half, Nigeria kept a firm grip on the steering wheel and looked to be cruising to the final of the AFCON. However, at the 75th minute mark, Hugo Broos made key changes to his attack which saw Bafana rise from the ashes, changing the tempo of the game.

Shortly after the substitutions, a moment of controversy stunned the game. A Bafana counter attack was halted as Percy Tau was brought down in the box, however the referee spotted no infringement, allowing the Nigerians to launch a counter of their own on the other end. They did not fail to impress, as Victor Osimhen doubled the lead, in what seemed to be the goal that was sending South Africa back to OR Tambo International Airport.

But the Super Eagles celebrations were short lived, as referee Amin Mohamed Omar, took a moment to consult the video assistant referee (VAR). All fans in the stadium went silent, closing their eyes as they awaited an outcome. The decision was made without a shadow of doubt after VAR intervention, the referee cancelled the goal and awarded Bafana a penalty for the earlier incident on Percy Tau.

Earthquakes are an uncommon phenomenon in Africa, but the cheers of South Africans could be felt vibrating throughout the continent. This was a game changing decision that came at the death of the game. At the 90th minute mark, Teboho Mokoena stepped up for South Africa with nerves of steel, and buried the pressure kick as if he was kicking a ball in his backyard. This resuscitated the Bafana team as the momentum instantly shifted in favour of the South Africans.

With the score level, the game seemed to be headed to extra time once again. But a foul committed on the edge of the box won Bafana a free kick in the final seconds of the game. Teboho Mokoena stepped up once again as Bafana’s saviour, with a shot hit so hard the Nigerian goalkeeper, Stanley Nwabali, simply could not handle the ball. The keeper saved it, allowing a clear opportunity from the rebound for Bafana defender, Khuliso Mudau.

With open goals and the hopes of the nation on the line, Mudau unfortunately squandered the opportunity, sending the ball straight into the crowd.

A hardly fought extra time ensued following this big moment, as the teams were still deadlocked at 1-1. Extra time was a tussle of two giants trying to pin each other down, with both teams playing for a spot in the final. Towards the end of extra time, a tactical decision from Grant Kekana saw him ‘take one for the team’. He received a straight red card following a professional foul on the last man after taking down Nigerian forward, Terem Moffi, who was through on goal. He did not take one for his team, he took a red card for his country.

The two teams were subjected to a penalty shootout, as that was the only way to settle their differences. A heart aching shootout for Bafana supporters ended in defeat, as Teboho Mokoena and Evidence Makgopa failed to convert their spot kicks. Bafana’s luck had run out, and it was a sad way to lose the game for a team that had fought tooth and nail as underdogs, but such is football.

Here’s what fans on X had to say about the game:

@willycactus_ posted, “This is the best Bafana Bafana we have seen in a long time!”

@GoalcomSA posted, “Shoutout to Bafana Bafana. They won our hearts!”

@MapsMaponyane posted, “It has felt so good being excited about Bafana Bafana again after such a long time. Thank you”

Coach Hugo Broos and his men have made the nation proud. “Everyone knows South Africa now”, said a proud coach Broos in his post match press conference. Bafana Bafana may have not lifted the trophy, but they lifted the spirits of a nation that had longed to dream again when in national football.

They must now lift their heads and continue the fight, as they play against The Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday night for the 3rd place playoff. Kick off is set at 22:00 CAT, and the match will be held at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in Ivory Coast.

Not all stories have fairy tale endings, but Bafana have written a cinematic story line. One more fight, one more reason for South Africa to come together as one.

Main image: TimesLive

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