South Africa's players are dejected after losing the penalty shootout...

South Africa's players are dejected after losing the penalty shootout during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Credit: AP/Themba Hadebe

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — He's proud of his team’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign but South Africa coach Hugo Broos feels there’s little point in having the third-place playoff match between two sides disappointed not to be in the final.

“If you ask my advice, this game should not be played,” Broos said Friday. “The most important thing in a tournament like this is No. 1. If you are No. 3 or No. 4 tomorrow, for me it’s exactly the same because this is only for specifics.”

South Africa plays Congo on Saturday before Nigeria takes on host nation Ivory Coast in Sunday’s final.

“No. 1 is important, No. 1 they will always remember,” Broos said.

The 71-year-old Belgian coach led Cameroon to the title in 2017 and might have repeated the feat in this edition if Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali hadn’t made two penalty saves in the shootout to win their semifinal 4-2 on penalties on Wednesday.

“I hope that my players will be recovered enough from the knockdown they got on Wednesday,” said Broos, who said there were “three, four players who suffer from injuries.”

Mamelodi Sundowns forward Thapelo Maseko went off injured in late in the quarterfinal win over Cape Verde and Broos said his “tournament has finished,” while defender Grant Kekana is suspended for Saturday's match after his red card in the loss to Nigeria.

South Africa's head coach Hugo Broos shouts during the African...

South Africa's head coach Hugo Broos shouts during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Credit: AP/Themba Hadebe

“We showed that we’re a good team again,” Broos said of that near-miss. “And when you’re out of the final, after 120 minutes and penalties, it’s always a big disappointment. Disappointment was for all of us, including the coach. This is a coach who is proud to be coach of that team. We did a very good job.”

Back home, where South Africa’s rugby team had been getting more attention after winning the Rugby World Cup last year, the Bafana Bafana’s performances in Ivory Coast generated new-found enthusiasm for soccer.

South Africa failed to qualify for the previous Africa Cup and little was expected of the team at the start of the tournament, especially after starting with a 2-0 loss to Mali. But the Bafana Bafana bounced back with a 4-0 rout of neighboring Namibia and went on to stun World Cup semifinalist Morocco in the last 16.

South Africa captain Ronwen Williams saved four penalties in the shootout win over Cape Verde in the quarterfinals, where he also made a brilliant save late on to keep his team in the game.

South Africa's Evidence Makgopa reacts after failing to score from...

South Africa's Evidence Makgopa reacts after failing to score from a penalty shot during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Credit: AP/Themba Hadebe

“It’s something we can be really proud of. At least now we have some direction,” South Africa center back Siyanda Xulu said. “We know where we’re going. The coach kept reminding us how good we are as a team, as players, so it’s just a matter of believing in that now and taking it to the next step.”

Familiarity has been key to the South African team’s success, with the Bafana Bafana squad almost entirely home-based players.

Nine in the initial squad of 26 players play club soccer for the Mamelodi Sundowns. That includes Williams, the captain and goalkeeper, star player Themba Zwane and inspirational midfielder Teboho Mokoena.

Five ply their trade for the Orlando Pirates, another South African team, including Evidence Makgopa, who scored the vital opening goal against Morocco.

Broos said the players will benefit from their experiences at the tournament, particularly the win over Morocco and near-victory over Nigeria.

“After Wednesday, we know that we can beat them,” Broos said with a view to facing Nigeria again in 2026 World Cup qualifying. “This AFCON made us stronger.”

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