By Mark Etheridge┬áin London
Ai, ai, ai! A penalty stroke by Japan’s Ai Murakami five minutes from the end of extra time saw South African hearts broken as Japan won the ninth-10th place Olympic Games play-off at the Riverbank Arena on Wednesday.
The game had ended 1-1 after regulation time and it stayed that way for the first half of golden goal extra time.
But then came the penalty stroke decision and the Japanese No6 stepped up to beat SA goalkeeper Mariette Rix and force South African into 10th spot.
Still, they came into these Olympic Games as the 12th ranked side and anything higher than 12th has to be seen as a bonus for this team that coach Giles Bonnet only sees as reaching their true potential at the 2014 World Cup.
A 27th minute goal by Lisa -Marie Deetlefs saw South Africa leading┬á 1-0 at halftime but Japan then squared the match with just seven minutes to play.
The first goal came after South Africa won their second penalty corner (and their third of the match) in the space of a minute.
From the PC a clever variation saw Kate Woods making advances into the right hand side of the D before firing across goal where Deetlefs made no mistake from close in. The joy in the SA camp was palpable with players rushing from all corners of the pitch to share in the celebrations.
Until then play had been relatively even but as the half wore on South Africa seemed to be gaining in confidence and Sulette Damon also went close with a hard-hit reverse stick shot from the left.
The Japanese side showed some indiscipline in the first half and were punished with three green-card offences (two-minute suspension).
The second half started with South Africa pressing hard for that two-goal cushion. They went close in the 10th minute after some good work by captain Marsha Marescia close to the Japanese goal-line saw her flash a cross in and Sulette Damons just couldn’t make contact with the goal beckoning.
With 19min to go Japan were again reduced to 10 players, this time for five minutes as Sachimi Iwao received a yellow card to go with the green she had in the first half.
South Africa were living dangerously though and twice Japan came close to equalising while Iwao was off the field, both from scrappy goalmouth scrambles.
Then it was SA’s turn to feel the pressure as Lesle-Ann George had to take a backseat for five minutes and returning for Japan Iwao had a golden chance to level things when she┬á had acres of space in the D but blazed wide of Rix’s goal.
With seven minutes to go it was all level as Murakami levelled from a penalty corner that just squeezed in off Rix’s pad as she and an SA defender tried to keep the Japanese out.
South Africa then had two players off the field at the same time as both Kate Woods and Bernadette Coston were shown yellow cards as SA tried to contain what seemed like an invasion of red ants in their half of the field.
Within seconds of the hooter the Japanese had two great chances to seal the match but first Rix then the goal-line saw regulation time ending with the two sides locked at 1-1.
That saw the match move into golden-goal extra time before Murakami ended SA’s 2012 Olympic Games after a long and gruelling campaign and build-up that took them around the world before reaching London.