History beckoned, but Bafana Bafana tripped and fell.
Shakes Mashaba’s boys learnt how cruel the game can be on Wednesday night, when after taking a two-goal lead they had to settle for a draw at Akwa Ibom Stadium on Wednesday night.
Bafana had already qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations coming into this game but they were determined to finally get that elusive victory over Nigeria in a competitive match. But it wasn’t to be.
Bafana will be consoled by the fact that they finished the qualifiers on top of Group A and were not defeated by any of Nigeria, Congo or Sudan.
Super Eagles substitute Aluko Omatsone scored his second of the game in second-half stoppage time to level matters for the African champions and end Bafana’s hopes of a historic victory.
Bafana were in dreamland for about an hour and it looked as though they would pull off one of their most memorable victories. Striker Tokelo Rantie had scored a brace to give Bafana a two-goal lead which left the crowd stunned.
The Bournemouth forward broke the deadlock on the stroke of halftime with a good goal. He dribbled his way through the Nigerian defence and when the opportunity presented itself, he calmly slotted the ball home at the near post to give SA the lead against the run of play.
Nigeria had dominated most of play before Rantie’s goal and the home side’s fans could not believe that they were robbed of their dominance. They were silenced again early in the second period by the same player Rantie.
The former Orlando Pirates player rounded Nigerian goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama to slot the ball into an empty net.
But it all went wrong when Aloka Omatsone pulled one back midway through the second stanza. He calmly finished after Ike Uche’s shot had come off the upright.
From then on, it went downhill for the visitors.
A few minutes after Nigeria had reduced the deficit Bafana midfielder Reneilwe Letsholonyane was sent off. That spurred Nigeria on and the fans, who were frustrated for most of the game, came alive and rallied behind their troops.
Nigeria pushed for the equalising goal and they got it. And it was Omatsone again with the finish. He broke the hearts of the Bafana players, who could not believe what had happened.
Mashaba is all about giving players a chance. And those who prove themselves are not easily taken out of the team. Wednesday night, particularly in the early stages of the first half, goalkeeper Darren Keet proved he can be the man between the sticks at the Africa Cup of Nations and beyond, even if Itumeleng Khune is fit to play again.
Keet made two brilliant saves to deny Nigeria’s best player, Ahmed Musa, and he commanded his area well. It is a positive Mashaba can take from the game.