Bafana Bafana have no grasp of the dark art of giant-killing, writes Carlos Amato, which you can only master if you regularly confront superior teams.
Minutes after Saturday night's shootout hell, I tried to fish for some comforting praise for Bafana Bafana from Mali's Momo Sissoko. I wanted him to be nice about the South Africans' stirring performance, and preferably suggest that Mali were a bit lucky to advance to the semifinals on penalties.
No chance. The Paris St Germain midfielder was unwilling to blow smoke up South Africa's bruised arse. "Bafana were good, but we were better," he snapped, and strolled off towards the Mali team's bus.
Ag well. Losing is a bitch, and it can't be airbrushed by kind words. The only consolation to be found in Bafana's quarterfinal exit is that a march to the semifinals or beyond would have tempted our football industry back into its trough of complacency and denialism. We might have fallen into the fatal trap of believing we're on the right track. We aren't.
This is not to belittle the sterling work of Gordon Igesund and his troops this month. They did their best with the resources they possess. In their quest to qualify for Brazil 2014, this group can draw real inspiration from having dominated the third-ranked team in Africa for 45 minutes.
On Saturday, they were a team transformed from their dire opening performance against Cape Verde. Fluent, mobile and organised, they dominated possession for long spells. It was a pleasure to see the national team showing their grasp of the art of passing a football.
The problem was that Bafana had no grasp of the dark art of giant-killing. It's obviously never an easy thing to do, and it can't be done at will. It's an art that demands extreme fitness, sustained intensity, cool decision-making and a dash of nastiness. And it's an art you can only master if you regularly confront superior teams.
None of Bafana's players work in a major league. And seven of the starting eleven play in the PSL, where they are big, comfy fishes in a small pond. And big South African teams can't really be bothered with African competitions – they prefer to fart around in pursuit of tacky domestic pots.
Most of the Malian lineup on Saturday work in a major league – France's Ligue 1. That wealth of exposure to elite football counts, in the same inescapable way that the force of gravity counts.
And look at Burkina Faso, who are two games from conquering Africa. Their success has surprised many, but Les Etalons have been quietly harbouring an undercover quartet of Ligue 1 stalwarts. Their campaign has been anchored by Jonathan Pitroipa of Rennes, Bakary Koné of Olympique Lyon, Alain Traoré of Lorient and Charles Kaboré of Olympique Marseille.
None of them were famous in South Africa until this week. But Pitroipa would easily be the best player in the PSL if he moved here – at least until the forgiving, mistake-ridden environment of our league took the edge off his game.
Weekly big-league football gives you mental and physical endurance. For example, last night, after 105 minutes of a draining contest, Pitroipa summoned the energy and precision to execute a superb headed winner against Togo.
By contrast, Bafana almost emptied their tank in that excellent first half. By late in the second half, they were utterly knackered by the intensity of the contest and had to hold out for a shootout they feared. Reneilwe Letsholonyane had been immense, but he lost Seydou Keita at the critical moment. May Mahlangu and Dean Furman both shone, but like their PSL comrades, they were eventually unable to transcend the limitations of their minor-league experience to date. Both Furman, 24, and Mahlangu, 23, have decent prospects of rising to the elite level, having left South Africa in their teens.
As usual, there has been much pointless scapegoating of individual players by Bafana fans. And we love to trumpet the merits of players who did not represent Bafana in any given defeat, simply because their reputations were protected by their absence.
But let's not kid ourselves. The only South African player who might have made a difference to the result on Saturday was Steven Pienaar, who is not coming back.
Talking on a SuperSport panel on Sunday, Gavin Hunt and Farouk Khan were explaining the technical deficiencies in Bafana's defending, and especially the issue of body position. They pointed out that a good defender will always keep his weight on his back foot, and maintain an open stance that allows him to see both the ball and the opponent he must mark.
That's a useful metaphor for the South African football's only viable future: we have to adopt an open stance to both Europe and Africa – as do the four West African countries who have reached the semifinals.
So we need more academy partnerships and equity deals between PSL clubs and European clubs. Safa needs to import many more European, West African and South American youth coaches – both as visiting consultants and permanent residents.
Local clubs need to buy better players from around the world, to improve the standard of our game. And the Gauteng giants need to compete seriously in African tournaments.
And most importantly, until we start developing and exporting better players at a younger age, thus giving them a chance of enjoying major-league careers, we have no hope of recapturing the glory of 1996.
Our African rivals have leapt forward since then – by pursuing the rich rewards, both financial and otherwise, of elite European football. It's time we followed suit.