Sometimes dreams end in heartbreak. When the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts, South Africa embarked on their ambitious campaign on 11 June, there was so much hope and romance in the streets of South Africa. But as they exited on Tuesday, they did so with their heads held high after a gutsy and tenacious performance against the runners-up at Germany 2006.

The 2-1 victory against France took South Africa to four points – the same number of points they accumulated at their last appearance at a FIFA World Cup in 2002, but again it was not enough to see Bafana Bafana go through to the Round of 16. They left the Free State Stadium with mixed feelings – happy to have beaten a credible side like France, but heartbroken to be eliminated from the world’s greatest showpiece in their own backyard.

Pride in defeat
In his post-match analysis, team coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira decided to focus on the positives. “I'm proud of these boys,” he said. “We know South Africa didn't have a great position in the FIFA ranking when I came here in November, and since then we’ve only lost one game against Uruguay. We've played against a lot of good teams and these boys today have showed that the hard work has paid off. Today they have an identity, this is what I said before, we need to have an identity, we need to have a face.”

Despite the set-back, the hosts have a lot to celebrate after picking themselves up from their 3-0 defeat by Uruguay. Against France, South Africa were hungry, passionate and polished. They were innovative in attack and largely solid in defence, bar a slip in concentration which led to Florent Malouda’s consolation.

This team now has an identity and the face of this team was very clear: ball on the ground and possession – it’s a distinct technique.

Carlos Alberto Parreira

Ultimately, an inferior goal difference proved to be South Africa’s Achilles’ heel and rather than questioning the back four, South African fans appear to looking at the teams misfiring strikers. Katlego Mphela, picked to be the heir to Benni McCarthy’s crown, was often culpable in missing opportunities, but feels that the experienced gained during the competition, together with the legacy left by the tournament, will stand South Africa in good stead.

“Actually I’m not sad, we gave our best, we showed the same spirit that we showed against Mexico and we were a bit unfortunate that we missed a couple of chances but. I mean a win is a win, especially against France in the World Cup, that’s history and that will be always remain like that,” Mphela said.

A bright future and a new coach
Having been rehired to build side capable of competing with the best at the World Cup, Parreira’s reign came to a bittersweet end. Although the performances against Mexico and France were that of a well-drilled, fully-motivated side, their Brazilian coach’s primary mandate was to lead the team successfully through the group stages, and ultimately he fell agonisingly short.

The Brazilian FIFA World Cup-winning coach, however, believes that he has laid a solid base for future development. While his side’s ball retention continued to frustrate him, Parreira certainly succeeded in lifting confidence levels, which had slumped under former coach Joel Santana. “I believe the foundation is there for a bright future for South African football,” said Parreira. “This team now has an identity and the face of this team was very clear: ball on the ground and possession – it’s a distinct technique. Of course we're disappointed because we didn't qualify, but I do not consider that a failure. My main feeling is pride. Everybody sees and knows that this group was one of the toughest in this World Cup.”

The search for Parreira’s successor will now begin in earnest, with South Africa on the lookout for a man can take the team back to the pinnacle of African football. However, Parreira himself is not interested in influencing SAFA’s decision. “No, it's not my business (to appoint a new coach),” he said. “I think the federation has already decided and I think the decision is a wise one. You're going to know very soon.”