By Thomas Kwenaite
Jody February starred for the SA U-23 as they broke the hearts of hosts Senegal to win 3-1 in a penalty shootout after their third and fourth play-off match ended in a goalless draw in Dakar on Saturday.
South joined finalists Nigeria and Algeria on the flight to Rio for next August’s Olympic Games, marking the first time in the history of South African football that both men and women teams would be competing at the Olympics.
But it was goalkeeper February who proved to be South Africa’s hero with a string of fine saves during the penalty shootout as well as pulling off another brilliant penalty save during the regulation 90 minutes, which ended 0-0.
After a promising start in which they engaged in their vaunted one touch football, South Africa poked holes in the Senegalese side that appeared jittery at the start of the game, but failure to convert their chances allowed the hosts to regain their composure.
South Africa was to live dangerously as Senegal completely took over and started dominating the Baby Bafana who retreated into a shell, allowing the hosts to come at them while trying to hit them on the counter.
Twice South Africa’s plan appeared to work like a charm as Phakamani Mahlambi managed to work his way past the defence and paid on a dream pass that eluded the Senegalese defence but found no one to tap in while on the second occasion, Menzi Masuku could not hit the target from an inviting chance.
Senegal were then awarded a penalty in the 73rd minute and Mousa Keita took a step back and his blistering effort was well read by the outstanding February who dived brilliantly to his left to keep it out and the score still goalless.
That gave South Africa a lifeline and when Gift Motupa came on, South Africa seemed to get a second wind and started matching the hosts who kept pounding their goalposts where February had to be alert to keep them out.
In the shootout, Mahlambi scored the crucial third penalty to send South Africa to Rio.