In an unexpected turn of events, Bafana Bafana faced a harsh lesson in their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) opener against Mali, succumbing to a 2-0 defeat at the Stade A.G. Coulibaly in Korhogo, Ivory Coast. Percy Tau’s inexplicable squandering of a spot kick in the first half proved to be South Africa’s undoing, as Mali capitalized with two quick-fire goals in the second half to take the lead in Group E alongside Namibia on three points.
The first blow came when a free kick conceded by Mthobi Mvala on the edge of the box rattled the crossbar, and Mali’s captain, Hamrai Traore, reacted swiftly to slot home the rebound, catching the South African defenders off guard. The scoreline soon doubled as Mali’s Lassine Sinayoko showcased strength to avoid Siyanda Xulu’s attention and expertly slotted a shot from inside the box. This opportunity arose after Bafana lost possession, attempting to play the ball out from the back in the Mamelodi Sundowns style.
The defeat places coach Hugo Broos’ men under immense pressure, as they now must secure a victory against Namibia, who surprised Tunisia with a 1-0 win. The Southern Africa derby, initially perceived as an ‘easy’ three points for Bafana, has become a more challenging proposition based on the opening matches.
While Bafana displayed dominance and confidence in the first half, their struggles in the final third were evident. Despite being in control, they failed to capitalize on a gilt-edged chance just after the quarter-hour mark. An off-the-ball incident resulting in Evidence Makgopa bleeding from the mouth led to a VAR-reviewed penalty decision, with Percy Tau stepping up. In a surprising turn, Tau’s shot disturbed the bats’ flying pattern, disappointing the South African super fans and leaving the massive Mali crowd relieved.
Tau’s later selfish attempt at goal, instead of passing to the better-positioned Makgopa, further highlighted Bafana’s missed opportunities. Just before the half-time break, Ronwen Williams had a glancing header saved by goalkeeper Dijigui Diarra, adding to Bafana’s frustration.
Mali had their chances, too, notably on the stroke of half-time following a defensive blunder by Mthobi Mvala and Siyanda Xulu, but Ronwen Williams’ alertness kept them at bay.
Early in the second half, both sides had excellent opportunities to score, with Makgopa for Bafana and Haidara for Mali missing what seemed like sitters. However, Mali eventually capitalized on their chances, scoring two goals that mirrored their victory over Bafana in the 2002 tournament.
This marked Mali’s third AFCON success over South Africa, the previous one being a shootout victory in the 2013 edition at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium. Bafana’s winless streak in AFCON openers continues for the sixth consecutive tournament, with their last victory dating back to 2004 against Benin. Making it to the knockout stages now poses a tough challenge for South Africa.