South Africa will be absent from the Round of 16, despite their win against France on Tuesday. Their disappointment could hardly be more acute, but the hosts can rightly console themselves with having forged an identity and restored pride.
Bafana Bafana’s final contribution to the tournament proved a bittersweet symphony, even if the verve was all theirs as they secured victory at the Free State Stadium. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s charges long seemed to be carried by joyous violins, but game ended on a discordant final chord as they faced up to elimination – the first time the host nation have failed to qualify from the group stage in FIFA World Cup™ history.
“If you’d told us before the start of the competition that we’d end the group games with four points, we’d have taken that without question,” centre-back Bongani Khumalo explained to FIFA afterwards, fresh from having plundered his first ever international goal. “I’m not sad because we proved our worth and gave everything,” added Katlego Mphela, voted the Budweiser Man of the Match. “That makes me immensely proud, even if it was unfortunately not enough.”
‘While Mexico’s win over Uruguay in Rustenburg gave South Africa a genuine chance of progressing, ultimately they fell short on goal difference – “but with our heads held high”, according to Parreira. Their major undoing was undoubtedly their failure to take their chances, especially during their opening 1-1 draw with Los Aztecas. “We weren’t able to punish France when we had to,” MacBeth Sibaya told FIFA. “We created opportunities but just didn’t seize them, and in a World Cup you can’t get away with that.” Khumalo echoed that sentiment, saying, “[Florent] Malouda’s goal was all the more disappointing because before that we’d had the chance to score at least two more of our own.”
Most notably, Mphela fired against the post with 51 minutes gone, and the combination of bad luck and wayward finishing ended by taking its toll. South Africa’s Brazilian tactician refused to focus on the negatives after the whistle, however. “What the players did today and what they’ve done for the last seven months has been fabulous,” he said. “Everyone could see that this squad was strong. I’m happy with my lads. They wanted an identity and now they’ve got one. They showed that they have potential. We lost only the one match to Uruguay, and they've now finished first in the group. It’s a disappointment because it’s the end of an adventure, but the foundations are there for a brilliant future.”