At Orlando Stadium
The strike was so surreal it seemed like something out of this orbit – like an alien object shooting like a cannon into the goal.
That’s how Bafana Bafana goalkeeper and captain Ronwen Williams must have felt as Mohammed Sangare’s 91st long-range rocket earned Liberia a 2-2 draw in a crucial Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier at Orlando Stadium on Friday night.
AS IT HAPPENED | SA v Liberia
The goal was a shock to the system, sending the crowd, who were buoyed and cheery at 2-0 to SA, into stunned silence. Celebration turned into a funereal atmosphere.
Bafana did a complete self-sabotage job in the way only Bafana can, turning the gun from the opponent and planting it firmly on their own feet and making their task to get to Ivory Coast that much harder.
Although not all is lost and they could still qualify for the tournament by winning in Monrovia on Tuesday (18:00), they should have completely annihilated Liberia at home but blew the chance.
It was all looking too good and too easy. That’s when South Africans worry the most about their national team. They’ve seen it against Iraq, Cape Verde, Gambia and Sierra Leonne at various junctures in the past.
Nine minutes in and just seconds after Liberia had a penalty shout turned down, Percy Tau pounced on a long ball over the top, and received the ball before the goalkeeper, who brought the Bafana attacker down.
Burnley striker Lyle Foster stepped up, hopped, skipped and sent the goalkeeper Tommy Songo the wrong way – 1-0 to South Africa and not a moment too soon.
The goal definitely settled the hosts, who were frazzled in the opening five minutes as Liberia came with more purpose and intent.
In the 22nd minute, another excellent delivery, this time by Teboho Mokoena from a corner that found Foster’s head and the striker glanced the ball into the bottom far post corner.
At 2-0 up, the field opened up, the Liberians loosened their stalls and the anaemic crowd started to beef up in the stands as Bafana enjoyed more time and pleasure on the ball.
Bongokuhle Hlongwane, the left-sided member of Broos’ front trident, pounced on a defensive error and gave himself a delicious one-on-one chance with the goalkeeper but drilled his low shot onto the post and out.
After failing to bury that chance, the Minnesota United man rightly buried his head in his hands. That would be the theme of the rest of the match: Bafana chances missed.
Hlongwane again had a chance after 28 minutes, this time darting back to his right foot after a sweet Mokoena pass sent him into the danger area, but he put his curler wide.
In central midfield, Swedish-based Luke le Roux provided the perfect foil to the more creatively inclined Mokoena, and the pair kept Liberia from breaking past them with any potency.
For a while it was Eric Tinkler and Doctor Khumalo reincarnated.
Foster, though, was the perfect focal point. Whereas in the past, Broos might have resorted to playing Tau as his No 9, leaving him isolated and chasing lost causes, Foster brought the size and centre-forward’s instinct to lead the line and bring others into play.
Foster also knew where to be, where to operate and where not to expend wasteful energy. He stuck to the box or zones just outside it, while Tau, Themba Zwane, and Mokoena knitted everything in the build-up.
At 2-0 going into the second half, the victory didn’t seem certain. Tau thought he sealed the cap but his sumptuous freekick was disallowed in the 53rd minute.
Tau should have made it 3-0 10 minutes later when he went through on goal with the goalkeeper again gasping for air but he shot wide.
The crowd, now filling up from the modest levels at kick-off, was baying for the third goal that this performance merited.
Instead, it was a deflating Liberian goal that went in next through substitute Tisdell Tonia, who whipped a low freekick past the defence and confused goalkeeper Williams.
From there, what was complete control became frantic complacency as missed chances and misplaced passes became a constant. Tau, who was at the centre of many things Bafana did well, was culpable for the cruise control attitude that consumed the team.
But Tau wasn't the only one missing chances. Foster had an opportunity to put either Tau or Hlongwane through during a three-on-two counter-attack and picked out the defender.
Later, substitute Monnapule Saleng found himself in the box on the left and drilled his attempt wide across the goal.
By the end, Bafana were looking exactly as they did when they started the game, shaky and insecure, needing a Williams bailout from a goal-bound shot in the 90th minute.
And the home fears rang true after Sangare scored his late equaliser.