Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune said Bafana Bafana failed to kill off Mali when they were dominant in Saturday night's Nations Cup quarterfinal in Durban.
"We had a very good first half, and we should have maintained it," said a rueful Khune after the hosts were evicted from the championship in a penalty shootout.
"We were taking the game to our opponents, and we should have kept it there. But after we scored our goal, we relaxed a bit and gave Mali a chance to come at us."
Bafana played some of their finest football in years, attacking with fluency, composure and pace. And victory beckoned when the hosts took a first-half lead through Tokelo Rantie, who netted from close range after a superb long kick to Bernard Parker by Khune. But in the second half, Mali captain Seydou Keita headed an equaliser, and the Eagles grew stronger as the shootout loomed.
The little-known Malian keeper Soumaïla Diakité, who plays his club football in Bamako with Stade Malien, took his side to the brink of a semifinal spot with two fine saves from efforts by Dean Furman and May Mahlangu, after Siphiwe Tshabalala converted the first spotkick. Lehlohonolo Majoro missed the target to seal Bafana's exit.
Khune said there was great potential in this Bafana side, who bowed out unbeaten in open play after four games. "We've built a nice foundation at this tournament," he said."We just have to focus on the World Cup qualifiers. We didn't take our chances. Mali are a very good side—that's why they are going to the semis."
Midfielder Reneilwe Letsholonyane, who gave his finest performance to date in a Bafana shirt, raved about his two new cohorts in midfield—May Mahlangu and Dean Furman. "They're both young, with time on their sides, and talented. The future is bright for us," he said.
Letsholonyane was reluctant to comment on the immediate future of coach Gordon Igesund, who was mandated by South African Football Association to advance to the Nations Cup semifinals in order to keep his job. "But whoever is in charge, we will try to work with him," said Letsholonyane.
Mali striker Mamadou Samassa admitted that Bafana had his side reeling at times. "It was extremely difficult, and we were pushed to our limits," he said. "They posed a lot of problems with their crowd support, and last year, we experienced the same scenario against the host nation Gabon. We knew that the South Africans had small but very lively players, and that we would have greater strength."
Eagles midfielder Samba Sow also emphasised the importance of his side's physical prowess. "The South Africans had trouble finishing this game while we finished very strongly. We are stronger than we were last year. Even in our joy, we are more measured, whereas last year it was madness. Now we have more experience."
In Wednesday's semifinal at Moses Mabhida, the Malians will play the winners of Sunday's quarterfinal in Rustenburg between Ivory Coast and Nigeria.