The South African players, management, and administrators, as well as the spectators and media contingent in attendance, were seemingly all under the impression that Bafana had qualified for the continental tournament.
The players celebrated on the field with the knowledge that bottom-placed Egypt had defeated log leaders Niger 3-0 in a simultaneous group tie in Cairo.
Interviewed after the match, Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane praised his team for qualifying, as did SA Football Association president Kirsten Nematandani.
According to the Confederation of African Football, however, Bafana’s 2-1 loss to Niger in Niamey last month would count ahead of goal difference.
Niger, who also had nine points at the top of the group table, therefore booked their place at next year’s continental showpiece in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, despite an inferior goal difference to South Africa.
Bafana’s performance, meanwhile, in front of a near capacity crowd at Mbombela Stadium, was dreadful.
While a number of injuries to experienced players, including captain Steven Pienaar, had hampered the team’s preparation, this was their worst showing since coach Pitso Mosimane took over a year ago.
The South Africans ended the qualifying campaign first in the group standings with nine points and a better goal difference to both Niger and Sierra Leone, who finished with the same number of points.
Bafana were sluggish against the Leone Stars, and lacked cohesion, particularly in the crucial first 30 minutes of the match.
The visitors, on the other hand, looked sharper as their strike pairing of Mohamed and Teteh Bangura probed Bafana’s central defensive duo of Morgan Gould and Siyabonga Sangweni.
Not having an out-and-out left back left a gap on that side of defence, with right-footed Siboniso Gaxa producing a poor showing and getting caught out of position at times.
They had to wait until the 21st minute to make any meaningful attempt at goal, with Sangweni’s non-threatening header going wide, while captain Siphiwe Tshabalala’s cross after a good run a few minutes later found no-one in the box.
Sangweni pushed forward again in the 33rd minute before unleashing a shot that narrowly went over the bar before Tshabalala also made an attempt from the edge of the penalty area that sailed over the post.
Bafana’s top striker, Katlego Mphela, had a chance with a free kick outside the box that was easily saved by Sierra Leone goalkeeper Christian Caulker, and shortly before half-time he fluffed another shot following good play from midfielder Daylon Claasen.
At the start of the second period, Tshabalala found himself in the box with a scoring opportunity.
His attempted curler went wide of goal, however, with Caulker beaten.
The Leone Stars were calculative in their play and their strategy of pumping crosses to their burly forwards while curbing offensive play from Bafana.
Midfielder Rodney Strasser managed to rise above the Bafana defence 10 minutes into the second half, catching them napping from a corner kick, only for the header to go narrowly wide.
The key moment of the match, though, came in the 70th minute when Bafana keeper Itumeleng Khunes made a blinding punch after a long-range effort from winger Sheriff Suma.-SuperSport.com