Mali are the breaker of hosts' hearts. For the second successive year, they reduced a packed stadium to disbelieving silence, coming from behind to beat the Africa Cup of Nations hosts on penalties in the quarter-final. On Saturday night in Durban, as in Libreville against Gabon, the goalkeeper Soumaila Diakité was the hero. First he plunged to his right to beat away Dean Furman's penalty, then he stretched even further and lower to deny May Mahlangu. Lehlohonolo Majoro's wild effort, driven way wide, sealed the defeat.
So South Africa's dream is over but they at least restored some pride; there was some honour in their failure. They go out undefeated and, while their opening-day display against Cape Verde was dire, they have the memories of the consummate win over Angola and the dramatic late equaliser against Morocco to sustain them through World Cup qualifying. And for 26 minutes on Saturday, they looked like making the semi-final for the first time since 2000.
Gordon Igesund, the South Africa coach, had warned of the Eagles' height advantage and the frisson of anxiety was palpable in the stadium at each set play. Yet it was a Mali free-kick that led to South Africa taking a 32nd-minute lead. Itumeleng Khune claimed Seydou Keita's delivery acrobatically, sprang up and kicked long. Bernard Parker challenged and, although he went down, the ball ran on for May Mahlangu, a threat all night in his position behind the lone striker.
He worked an opening for Thuso Phala and although his shot was mis-hit it was deflected for Tokelo Rantie to sidefoot home at the back post.
South Africa seemed comfortable at that stage, playing with fluency and freedom that made them almost unrecognisable from the side that had scratched their way to a goalless draw against Cape Verde in the rain of the opening day. But this Mali, inspired by Keita, are admirably doughty: raucous atmospheres seem only to stiffen their resolve to, in their captains words, bring "priceless hope" to their war-torn nation.
Three years ago they came from 4-0 down with 12 minutes remaining to claim a draw in the opening game against Angola in Luanda. A year ago, they came from a goal behind in Libreville to eliminate Gabon on penalties. They had offered little beyond resistance this time but 13 minutes into the second half a rapid break led by Samba Sow culminated in Mamadou Samassa crossing for Keita to head past Khune from close range.
Silence fell over the Mabhida Stadium. South Africa's confidence drained. It took a fine save from Khune to deny Samassa. South Africa had played with great intensity early on; Mali, having sat off and absorbed pressure, looked fresher. Parker succumbed to an ankle injury and was replaced by Siphiwe Tshabalala, out of sorts in this tournament but still the darling of the crowd, the memory of his opening goal at the 2010 World Cup burning strong. The left-back, Tsepo Masilela took a blow to the face and ended up playing with a wedge of tissue hanging from his nostrils. But for all the endeavour, the game plodded inexorably where it had been heading since the equaliser: to penalties and Malian triumph.
Earlier, Ghana had secured their place in the semi-final for the fourth tournament in a row, riding their luck to beat Cape Verde 2-0. Ghana's goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda made a number of fine saves in the second half while Cape Verde were furious with the penalty with which the Black Stars took the lead, Asamoah Gyan going down following a shoulder barge from Carlitos. Mubarak Wakaso smashed the penalty straight down the middle and added his second in injury time, breaking through to roll into an empty net after Josimar Vozinha, the Cape Verde goalkeeper, had gone up for a corner.
"You have to take your own conclusions on the officiating of the match," said the Cape Verde manager, Lúcio Antunes, who will return to his day job as an air-traffic controller before leading his country in a World Cup qualifier away to Equatorial Guinea. "The result is fair because Ghana have good players. The tournament wasn't going to be interesting with Togo versus Cape Verde [in the semi-final]."
Cape Verde's 34-year-old captain, Nando Neves, meanwhile, announced his retirement from international football after the game.