COSAFA side South Africa sealed their place in the semifinals of the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations with a nervy 1-0 victory over Tunisia at the Stade Caroline Faye in M’Bour, Senegal, yesterday.
Orlando Pirates forward Menzi Masuku scored the decisive goal five minutes from time after South Africa, who needed just a draw to advance, had ridden their luck earlier in the game.
The side finished runners-up in their Group A behind hosts Senegal and now await the deciding matches in the tournament’s other pool tonight to see who they will face in the semifinals on Wednesday – set to be one of Algeria, Nigeria or Egypt.
South Africa need to finish among the top three teams at the continental finals to seal their place at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, where the women’s senior side Banyana Banyana have already booked a spot.
Coach Owen da Gama made two changes, midfielder Phumlani Nsthangase coming into the midfield in the place of Dumisani Zuma, and Siphelele Ntshangase replacing teenager Phakamani Mahlambi in the attack.
The excellent Masuku showed a fine touch to set up Siphelele Ntshangase for a shot from range and the Black Leopards forward saw his arrowing effort drift narrowly side in the opening chance of the game.
Tunisia goalkeeper Sabri Ben Hsa then produced a fine save to deny Keagan Dolly from a free-kick as South Africa made more of the running in the first half.
It took 40 minutes for Tunisia to have their first real effort on goal as Khaldoun Mansour was left unmarked at the back post, but fired his shot into the side-netting.
That sparked a flurry of Tunisian chances to close the first half, but Jody February in the South African goal stood firm.
South Africa were causing problems for themselves with some naïve defending in the opening 10 minutes of the second period that gifted the north African side three excellent chances to score, all of which were spurned.
A furious Da Gama rose from his bench to chastise his back four and call for more composure.
Rising star Mahlambi replaced Siphelele Ntshangase just past the hour-mark but it was Tunisia who continued to look the most likely to score.
Nader Ghandri should have put his side ahead when he was gifted a free header with 17 minutes remaining but glanced his effort wide in what was a major let-off for the South Africans.
But Da Gama’s side almost took the lead shortly afterwards with what would have been a contender for Goal of the Tournament as intricate build-up play set up Motupa from eight yards but he blasted wide when he should have hit the target at least.
Masuku then conspired to miss from four yards with just the goalkeeper to beat as Tunisia left gaps at the back in their pursuit of the winner.
But minutes later he sealed South Africa’s semifinal place with a tap-in after the exciting Mahlambi served up the chance on a platter with fine play in the box.
South Africa have only been to the Olympics once before when they qualified for the 2000 Games in Sydney, beat a star-studded Brazil 3-1 but still exited in the first round.