8 October 2011
With qualification for the 2012 African Cup of Nations finals on the line, Bafana Bafana met Sierra Leone in perfect conditions at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Saturday evening. The showdown, however, ended in a less than perfect manner.
The teams shared their third goalless draw in four meetings, and with Egypt drubbing Niger 3-0 in Cairo it appeared that South Africa had qualified for the continental finals on goal difference, and they celebrated like they had qualified after the game.
Coach Pitso Mosimane, interviewed on the field after the match, didn’t seem sure that his team had gone through; everyone else believed they had.
It appears that no one in the Bafana Bafana coaching set-up had read the terms of qualification.
The way things finished, after six matches South Africa, Niger, and Sierra Leone all had nine points from six matches. Bafana enjoyed the best goal difference at plus-two, the Leone Stars were all square on five goals scored and five conceded, while Niger were on minus-two.
However, the positions in the group were determined on head-to-head results between the three teams, and Niger, despite having the worst goal difference of the three teams, and having lost three games to the one each lost by South Africa and Sierra Leone, advanced.
It’s a system that led to a lot of confusion and controversy and it is possibly something that the Confederation of African Football (Caf) needs to re-examine. In most tournaments and leagues, positions are decided by goal difference when points are the same.
Coach Pitso Mosimane, having been assured that his team had made the finals, had mixed emotions after the game. “We played two different halves,” he explained.
‘I’m not happy with the result’
“I think we deserved to score. Sierra Leone is a strong team and they created pressure on us, but, really, I’m not happy with the result. I wanted a win.”
Sierra Leone coach Lars-Olof Mattsson commented: “In the second half, I understood that they knew the result of the Egypt game, so I saw that they were sitting back a lot more, but we didn’t create more than one or two chances, so that wasn’t good enough.”
His comment indicated that Mattsson, too, believed South Africa had qualified for Equatorial Guinea and Gabon 2012.
Man of the match Siyabonga Sangweni said: “I’m happy for my country and our nation, for coming in numbers and supporting us. I think our team spirit worked for us.” Sadly, his happiness was later to turn into disappointment.
With Steven Pienaar struggling with a groin problem, midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala once again wore the captain’s armband.
The early going was characteristic of two teams feeling each other out, although Bafana showed confidence on the ball. The Leone Stars, too, appeared comfortable and well-structured and immediately settled into the contest.
There was a scare for the home team in the tenth minute when Siboniso Gaxa was robbed of the ball in the penalty area as he tried to shepherd it over the line, but he responded with a hard tackle to reclaim possession.
From the start, it was clear that Bafana wanted to attack down the flanks, but Sierra Leone withstood the pressure with plenty of hustle in their defending.
In the 19th minute, though, South Africa forced a corner after foray down the left. Sierra Leone cleared, but Bafana won back possession and Siyabonga Sangweni headed wide from the right when supplied with a cross. By this time, most of the territory belonged to home side, although Sierra Leone looked composed and threatened to strike on the counter-attack.
Striker Katlego Mphela went down in the box seven minutes later, but there was never a serious consideration that a penalty should be awarded.
Although Sierra Leone, like South Africa, desperately needed a win, they chose to defend in numbers and deep, possibly banking on their hosts’ desperation to score and hoping to catch them on the break. That said, they also hassled the South African defenders every time they came into possession.
Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane was feeling the pressure and was warned by the referee and the fourth official to calm down after he expressed his displeasure about a decision near the half-hour mark.
South Africa looked in control, but their final passes lacked precision, which undermined their good build-ups.
Captain Siphiwe Tshabalala came close to unlocking the Sierra Leone defence in the 33rd minute when he rounded it on the right. However, his cross flashed across the goalmouth, but failed to find a South Africa foot to steer it into the net.
Gaxa then forced his way into the area, but his shot from a narrow angle was blocked behind for a corner kick.
A minute later, Sangweni powered a left-footer just over the crossbar from distance, raising a roar from the crowd.
With momentum moving in favour of the home side, and the players beginning to find some rhythm, Tshabalala tried a long range shot, but his effort was climbing from the moment he struck it and it passed harmlessly over the Sierra Leone goal.
Andile Jali also tried his luck from range, but was wide right, leading to coach Mosimane, having recovered from his berating from the officials, gesturing to his players to calm down.
With half-time approaching, Sierra Leone’s captain Ibrahim Kargbo conceded a penalty outside the area after bumping into Katlego Mphela. The striker took a crack at goal, but goalkeeper Christian Caulker dealt well with the ball, which bounced just in front of him.
The visitors took the game to South Africa right at the end of the half and forced a couple of corners, but were unable to make any impression on the Bafana defence.
At half-time, it was also goalless in Cairo, between group leaders Niger and Egypt.
Nine minutes into the second half, Mohamed Kamara was presented with a decent opportunity to give Sierra Leone the lead when he got onto the end of a corner kick. His header was way off the mark, however, passing well left of Itumeleng Khune’s left-hand post.
Shortly after that, the news came through that Egypt had taken the lead against Niger. That meant that should the scores stay the same, Bafana Bafana would finish top of the group, or so they thought.
Just past the hour-mark, a ball broke for Tshabalala on the edge of the Leone Stars’ box, but he fired a curling shot wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.
South Africa might have been struggling to break down the West Africans’ defence, but Egypt were having no troubles in Cairo where they had gone two goals ahead against Niger.
In the 71st minute, Khune pulled off a superb save of a powerful long range rocket from Sheriff Suma to keep South Africa on level terms. It was an effort that sent shudders down the backs of South African supporters and it almost led to Bafana conceding their first goal at the Mbombela Stadium in their third appearance at the ground.
When Egypt netted a third goal against Niger with 12 minutes to go in that game, the home team felt earning qualification was back in their own hands.
In the 81st minute, South Africa were awarded another free kick just outside the Sierra Leone area when Oupa Manyisa, on as a substitute, was brought down as he spun away from a defender. Skipper Siphiwe Tshabalala took it on his shoulders to take the kick and it required a good save from Caulker to deny him.
With six minutes remaining, the crowd, sensing a successful qualifying campaign, began to break into song, singing “Shosholoza”.
A cramping Itumeleng Khune led to a long break in play, but he remained on the field as the South African supporters saw their team draw ever nearer to clinching a place at in the continental finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon…but they were wrong.
Eventually the final whistle sounded and the South African coaching staff embraced as the Sierra Leone players, in an ugly scene, surrounded the referee and complained about his officiating.
The crowd cheered and the Bafana Bafana players celebrated finishing top of their group by taking a lap of honour around the field to thank their supporters, dancing as they made their happy way around the stadium.
But it was not to be. The unusual rules saw South Africa finish second and miss out on the Cup of Nations finals in a huge blow to football in the country that hosted the Fifa World Cup in 2010.
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