Their beloved Bafana Bafana are out of the World Cup, yet South African fans greeted the farewell win over France with pride and celebration.
Across South Africa, multiracial crowds packed into fan parks to follow Tuesday's make-or-break match, as drums beat constantly. Many fans were wearing the yellow Bafana Bafana jerseys, brandishing South African flags and blowing vuvuzelas.
"They played with pride, passion, skill and commitment and they left everything they possibly had out on that pitch," World Cup organizing committee chief Danny Jordaan said. "They go out with their heads held very high."
He urged South Africans to continue to "fill the streets, fill the stadiums" and make this the best World Cup ever.
South Africa, because of results in earlier Group A matches, needed a big victory over France to have any chance of advancing.
Bafana started well, taking a 2-0 lead before the French scored to cut the margin to 2-1. It wasn't enough for South Africa to avoid becoming the first host in the history of the World Cup to be eliminated in the first round. Uruguay and Mexico advanced from the group.
"They didn't make it, but they tried," said Kgomotso Mothiba, 24, an unemployed waitress watching the match on a video screen in Johannesburg's Zoo Lake Park. "I'm so proud of them."
At the final whistle, some fans continued to wave their flags, while others stood in silence. Some couples embraced each other in consolation. After some brief reflection, the general mood shifted to boisterous celebration.
"They may not have qualified, but they played a good game," said 49-year-old Anastasia Motacoane, an office cleaner who joined a large crowd of spectators at Mary Fitzgerald Square in central Johannesburg.
"It's an unbelievable performance by our boys. For the first time I feel so proud to be a South African," said Gared Peters, who traveled from a distant northern suburb to watch at the square.
South Africa President Jacob Zuma was at the match in Bloemfontein, where he congratulated the team.
"You have done South Africa proud," he told the players. "It is sad we did not get to the second round, but it was a big victory over a big side."
At Zoo Lake Park, Mothiba wrapped herself in a blanket decorated with soccer balls and the green-and-gold South African colors to watch the game. She and the other fans rose for the national anthem, then came to their feet again and again, every time Bafana Bafana had a shot.
At the first goal, Mothiba broke into a jogging-in-place dance. She shouted, "Out! Out!" when a French player was ejected, then a look of horror crossed her face at the possibility Macbeth Sibaya had been seriously injured. She waited in vain for her favorite player, Siphiwe Tshabalala, to score.
At the second Bafana goal, some in the crowd ran wide laps, mimicking the South African goalkeeper's celebration of the first.
Adam Mkasi, a 24-year-old youth soccer coach, was packing up after a practice session in Zoo Lake as the World Cup game began on the giant screen behind him.
After the match, he was philosophical.
"The platform is there, the structure is there," he said. "I'm promising you, 2014 is our year."