PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa The dreams of hosts South Africa and the tiny Cape Verde Islands came to a shattering halt on Saturday when they were knocked out of the African Nations Cup by Mali and Ghana respectively in the quarter-finals.
Mali, seeking their first Nations Cup title, kept their hopes alive by beating South Africa 3-1 on penalties, after the match finished 1-1 at the end of extra time, while Ghana, aiming for a long-awaited fifth crown, beat Cape Verde 2-0.
South Africa, trying to repeat their 1996 success when they were crowned champions on home soil, were eliminated after losing in a shootout in Durban, while Cape Verde, described by their coach Luico Antunes as "the best team in the competition", lost to two Mubarak Wakaso goals in Port Elizabeth.
Ghana will meet the winners of Sunday's clash between Togo and Burkina Faso in next Wednesday's semi-final in Nelspruit while Mali will play either tournament favourites Ivory Coast or Nigeria in the last four in Durban on the same night.
Saturday's results, while perhaps sad for the romantics, were justified as Mali recovered from a goal down to edge a match in which they looked the stronger side.
Ghana, although conceding lots of possession to Cape Verde especially in the second half, were sharper and more decisive when it mattered.
South Africa, cheered on by a near capacity crowd at the Moses Madhiba Stadium in Durban, settled first and took a deserved lead after 31 minutes when Tokelo Rantie's close range shot gave Mali goalkeepoer Soumbeyla Diakite no chance.
Mali levelled when their talismanic leader Seydou Keita powered in a header in the 58th minute but after that, even though Mali always looked more threatening, there was a sense of inevitability that the match would go to penalties.
The last half-hour of normal time, and extra time, produced few chances even though Mali looked more likely to score when they went forward, before the inevitable happened.
Siphiwe Tshabalala, who scored the memorable first goal in the opening game of the World Cup in South Africa three years ago, struck home the first penalty to raise South Africa's hopes before Cheick Diabate equalised for Mali.
But then the wheels came off for the hosts. Dean Furman, who had a superb match, saw his kick saved by Diakite before Adama Tamboura made it 2-1 to Mali. May Mahlangu then saw his kick saved before Mahamane Traore made it 3-1 to Mali.
Lehlohonolo Majoro had to score to keep South Africa in contention but he blasted his shot wide as Mali repeated their feat of last year when they came from behind to draw 1-1 with co-hosts Gabon and then won the quarter-final on penalties.
"The South Africans posed a lot of problems in the first half and we had to change the tactics in the second half to get back into the match," said Mali coach Patrice Carteron.
"They pressed us with a lot of diversity. But we knew we had to be patient and we had time to fight back."
There was a match-changing penalty in Port Elizabeth after 54 minutes following an even first half in which Cape Verde more than matched their illustrious Ghanaian opponents.
Mubarak Wakso took the kick and scored before wrapping up the victory with the last meaningful kick of the match in the last minute of stoppage time.
Although they went out, Cape Verde's participation at the finals was a remarkable success story as they were eliminated with their heads held high and their reputation enhanced.
With just 500,000 inhabitants, the island nation off the west coast of the continent is the smallest to reach the finals, but they were never overawed.
After draws against South Africa and Morocco in their opening group games, they reached the last eight with a 2-1 win over Angola.
Ghana also came through their group unbeaten and, although their players are far more experienced and used to the big occasion, coach Kwesi Appiah was full of respect for Cape Verde in the build-up and after the match.
"I knew they were going to be hard to beat, and that's exactly what happened. They were probably the better team in the second half too, but in tournament football all that matters is that you win and we did that in the end."
Wakaso, 22, emerging as one of the most promising youngsters at the tournament, followed up his penalty with a breakaway goal in the last minute of stoppage time.
Ghana, once the dominant force in African soccer with titles in 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982 did well in South Africa when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2010.
Now they have their sights on another continental crown, although captain Asamoah Gyan knows they have to improve.
"We have to go away and correct the mistakes we made today. We need to do better," he said.
(Reporting by Mike Collett; Editing by Ken Ferris)