Thembi Kgatlana had time to pull off one more trick, to take one more shot, to send one more jolt of electricity through the crowd. She had been running, by that stage, for roughly 100 minutes, mounting what appeared at times to be a fearsome, one-woman campaign to keep South Africa in the World Cup for as long as possible.
By that stage, even she would have conceded that it was over. The Netherlands had a two-goal lead, and somewhere in the region of 30 seconds to survive. But Kgatlana, as she had already amply proved in this tournament, does not believe in stopping.
And so she picked up the ball, midway inside the Dutch half, spun and writhed and twisted away from one defender, leaving her sprawled on the turf, and then lined up to shoot from 25 yards. The effort clipped Stefanie Van der Gragt in the face, and slithered just wide of Daphne van Domselaar’s goal.
It would, then, be the Dutch who emerged from this round of 16 match — the one that was meant to feature the United States, and so was scheduled to take place in a prime time U.S. television slot — to set up a quarterfinal meeting with Spain in Wellington, New Zealand. In hindsight, it might look like that outcome had been inevitable from the ninth minute, when Jill Roord gently nudged the Netherlands into the lead. And yet, thanks to Kgatlana, it had not felt like that at all.
At times, particularly in the first half, she had seemed to take the idea of South Africa’s elimination as a personal affront. She took the fight to the Dutch almost single-handedly, wresting control of the game, becoming its central character, tormenting the defenders tasked with marking her, testing van Domselaar again and again and again.
Kgatlana had already left an indelible mark on the tournament — and on South African soccer, for that matter — with the last-gasp goal that had defeated Italy and brought Desiree Ellis’s South Africa team here, to a first knockout game in the country’s soccer history. The circumstances in which she had done so, in the midst of intense personal grief, had made it not just a World Cup underdog story, but a parable of the power of enduring determination.
She was not, then, likely to go quietly. She might, had things only been marginally, fractionally, microscopically different, have scored two or three or four in the opening phase of the game. Once, she rushed her finish. Once, the ball did not quite fall exactly when she might have liked. Twice, van Domselaar shot out a leg just at the right time.
At no point, though, could the Dutch relax: Kgatlana was always there, on the shoulder of one central defender or another, lurking, waiting, and then bursting through, panic following in her wake.
Even after Lineth Beerensteyn doubled the Netherlands lead, her speculative effort squirming from Kaylin Swart’s grasp, the goalkeeper’s head bowing and heart breaking as she turned to see it bobble over the line, there was no rest, no quarter. Kgatlana kept coming.
Only the final whistle brought an end, brought deliverance. The Netherlands players lifted their arms in jubilation and relief. Some of South Africa’s players sank to their knees, their hopes ended and their dream dashed.
Kgatlana did not. She stayed standing, congratulating her opponents, commiserating her teammates. The Netherlands might be through, but it is South Africa that will remember this tournament as the time and the place when it arrived.