DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – Since the African Cup of Nations moved to a 16-team format in 1996, no host has ever failed to make it out of the group. So, when Siyabonga Sangweni curled in an equalizer against Morocco that ensured South Africa's qualification for the quarterfinal, the reaction was one of relief. Given how uninspired it was in the opening draw against Cape Verde, the embarrassment of a first-round exit had seemed a serious possibility.
The drama around South Africa's progress - leveling after 71 minutes, going behind again after 82 before the triumphant leveler four minutes later - created euphoria, more perhaps than if South Africa had marched to another victory as routine as its success over Angola. In the narrative of tournaments, momentum is all-important and the spirit South Africa showed in twice coming from behind has fostered a sense of belief.
Having seemed at times indifferent to the tournament, South Africa is awaiting Saturday's quarter-final against Mali with a sense of excited expectation. The Moses Mabhida Stadium will be packed and Durban will be in a festive mood. So feverish has the anticipation become that South Africa's manager, Gordon Idesund, has felt the need to start to play down his side's chances.
"Mali are a very talented team, with very good players," said Idesund. "They play a little bit differently from most of the teams we've played so far. They like to slow things down, they like to knock the ball around, they are very comfortable on the ball. They're all big boys - and all 11 players are tall players. When we have the ball we'll have to use it well. We'll have to keep it on the ground, get behind them and put pressure on their defense."
Mali surprised many by finishing third in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and, although the coach has changed, Patrice Carteron replacing his fellow Frenchman Alain Giresse, its basic method has not. Last year Les Aigles scored six and conceded five in five games. This year, its three group games brought two goals for and two against. Mali -- motivated, its captain Seydou Keita says, by the desire to bring "priceless joy" to people back home as civil war rages -- relies on grinding opponents into submission. Carteron spoke of the pressure on South Africa and how his side would relish playing in a nervously boisterous atmosphere, something Igesund dismissed as a cheap psychological trick. He's trying to play a bit of mind-games by doing that," he said. "There's as much pressure on him as there is on me. They're the third-ranked side in Africa and we're number 85 in the world. Both sides will be under pressure to win."
Both sides will be under pressure on Sunday too as Cote d'Ivoire face Nigeria in Rustenburg in a clash of the two great west African underachievers. Nigeria, burdened by the pressure that comes from being the most populous nation in Africa yet having won just two Cups of Nations, and none since 1994. That year, when Nigeria's present coach, Stephen Keshi, was captain, the Super Eagles beat Cote d'Ivoire on penalties in the semi-final, but on the two occasions the giants have met since at the Cup of Nations, the Ivorians have been triumphant.
Cote d'Ivoire has been comfortably the best side so far, and has had, in Gervinho, pretty much the one creative player in form in the tournament. The problem with Cote d'Ivoire is always the sense that all this has been said before; for the last three tournaments, it's been the same story, and always the Elephants have found a way not to win.
Cape Verde face no such pressure. The smallest nation ever to qualify for the Cup of Nations has become the smallest nation ever to play in the quarterfinal. Its coach, Lucio Antunes, who has taken time off from his day-job as an air traffic controller to lead the team, has been open about the fact that the quarterfinal was his ambition; anything else is a bonus and that makes Cape Verde unpredictable. Ghana, so far, has looked the only side that could conceivably challenge Cote d'Ivoire, particularly now Asmaoah Gyan has returned to form. The forward had lacked sharpness in Ghana's first two games but he responded in the third by scoring one and setting up another in the Black Stars' 3-0 win over Niger.
The fourth quarter-final features two sides in unfamiliar territory. Togo, whose last qualification for the finals, three years ago in Angola, ended in tragedy as three members of its party were killed in a gun attack on the team bus, has never been in a quarter-final before, while Burkina Faso's only experience of life beyond the group stage came on home soil in 1998.
Togo, led by Emmanuel Adebayor, is swift on the counter and showed admirable resilience in the face of some awful refereeing in its final group game, against Tunisia. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, was dogged against Nigeria and Zambia and took advantage against Ethiopia, despite being reduced to 10 men when its goalkeeper, Abdoulaye Soulama, was sent off. Jonathan Pitroipa is an intelligent center-forward but what elevated Burkina was the form of the center forward Alain Traore. He calmly notched the equalizer against Nigeria and then scored with two ferocious strikes against Ethiopia. A thigh injury, though, has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament, and that leaves Burkina significantly blunted.