RUSTENBURG, South Africa - South Africa is looking on the bright side despite its disappointing elimination at the African Cup of Nations, with officials praising the team's participation at the home tournament and looking forward to a better future.
South Africa's run ended Saturday after a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Mali on penalties after a campaign that got fans excited despite a poor start and a lacklustre buildup.
"Like everyone around the country, I am hugely disappointed that we did not proceed to the last four," South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. "But I can tell you now I am very proud of my team. They matched one of the best teams on the continent and even took them to penalties."
South Africa was about 30 minutes away from advancing to the semifinals for the first time in more than a decade on Saturday, but it conceded a 58th-minute equalizer that sent the match into extra time and eventually the shootout.
"We lost with pride, dignity and passion," Igesund said. "They gave their all today. If you lose, you want to lose with pride. We played well, but we didn't score the goals."
Even the government was praising the players despite the elimination.
"Our team fought hard and dominated but as a nation we understood that there could only be one winner," South Africa Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said. "For two weeks South Africa has displayed excellent performance on and off the field, which inspired many across the length and breadth of our beloved country."
South Africa had hoped that the home advantage would help it advance past the quarterfinals for the first time since 2000, when it lost to Nigeria. The South Africans didn't qualify for last year's tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
This year it opened with a lacklustre draw against newcomer Cape Verde, but fans came on board after it beat Angola 2-0 and rallied to draw Morocco 2-2 to eventually win Group A.
Midfielders Dean Furman and May Mahlangu had their shots saved by Mali goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite in the shootout in Durban, and striker Lehlohonolo Majoro sent his spot kick wide to allow Mali to reach the semifinals for the second straight time.
"We are disappointed, and more especially the nation," South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune said. "People came out here in numbers to support us and they wanted to see us go through to the semis. But it wasn't meant to be. In the penalty shootout things didn't go our way."
South Africa, which was the only non-West African nation left in the tournament, leaves the competition without a loss after regular time.
"This tournament has been fantastic," Igesund said. "I think we have made huge strides. We got better and better as the tournament went on. The improvement we made (was) fantastic. This team has come a long way not only in the way they play but also off the field."
South Africa hosted the African Cup the only time it won the tournament, in 1996, and was runner-up two years later in Burkina Faso in what has been its best finish since then.
"Obviously it's disappointing, but we will pick ourselves up and then we will go on from there," Furman said. "I think everyone had to dig deep. It shows we got a lot to go forward. We lost, we are very disappointed, but we've got a lot of confidence to take from the tournament and we believe that this team can go a long way."
Next for South Africa is to try to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The team is currently third in Group A of the continent's qualifying tournament.
"We are out of the (African Cup) right now but there are many positives," team captain Bongani Khumalo said. "We have to take what we can and move forward from this experience."
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