With both teams in a proverbial ‘group of death’ alongside Morocco and Namibia, getting points early on was paramount in either side’s push for the knockout stages.
Bafana were making their return to Afcon after missing out on the 2017 edition of the tournament, and as they took to the field at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo, head coach Stuart Baxter was confident considering that he had declared a clean bill of health for his squad ahead of the game.
This saw him utilise the luxury of fielding top scorer in qualifying Percy Tau - with four goals - alongside Lebo Mothiba and Lebohang Maboe, while the biggest surprise was reserved for Darren Keet’s absence, as Ronwen Willams took his place in between the sticks.
It looked to be a busy afternoon for the keeper in the early stages considering that he faced an attack consisting of the highly rated Nicolas Pepe and Kodjia.
The latter was causing South African left-back Sifiso Hlanti all sorts of headaches as he drifted wide during the opening minutes.
The heat was certainly also a factor and Bafana opted to sit back and play on the counter.
The Southern Africans spent some time prior to the tournament acclimatising to the conditions in a camp held in Dubai, but it seemed like a baptism of fire as Ivory Coast did all the attacking in the first 15 minutes of the game.
However, with the heat taking its toll on Ivory Coast, spaces were beginning to open up for Bafana and Thulani Hlatshwayo came within a whisker of opening the scoring, but his header flew just past goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo and into the side netting.
The last time these two giants met in the Afcon group stages was back in 1998 in a game which ended in a 1-1 draw.
The game looked to be headed in a similar fashion with both side’s playing a rather pragmatic brand of football, relying on set pieces to cause the opposition harm.
It was through a set play that the Elephants came closest to breaking the deadlock, when a well-executed free-kick by Pepe cannoned off the woodwork with Williams scurrying to keep the ball out.
The keeper didn’t have long to recover as moments later, Kodija was played through on goal, but the SuperSport United keeper produced a brilliant save to deny the England-based forward’s striker from point-blank range and kept the scores level as the sides headed into the half-time interval.
The second half saw both sides refrain from making any changes as the slightly cooler conditions would have been a lot more conducive to a higher tempo of football. But the gap between the Bafana midfield and attack was a little too big as Tau was isolated up front.
Bafana never lost to Ivory Coast previously, and they were determined to keep that run going but the stop-start nature of the game was doing little for Bafana’s ability to build from the back.
With 65 minutes played, Bafana’s defence was eventually breached.
The ever-dangerous Kodjia finally got his goal with a clinical finish which Williams could not keep out.
While the goal came as a sucker punch to Bafana, it did liven up matters as they were now forced to come out of their shell in search of an equaliser.
But the Ivorian’s threat could never be underestimated as the likes of Franck Kessie kept Bafana on their toes.
A introduction of Wilfried Zaha with 20 minutes to go also had Bafana trembling.
In order to combat that threat, Baxter then threw on Sibusiso Vilakazi in hope that his ball-playing ability would inject new life into the attack.
With Vilakazi’s substitution doing little to reinvigorate the Bafana side, Baxter then threw on the lanky figure of Lars Veldwijk as they looked to play a lot more direct.
Yet again though, it was Ivory Coast who almost doubled their advantage at the other end as Williams made one final fabulous save - this time denying Pepe from the dead ball situation with his fingertips.
Despite Williams’ best efforts, the 27-year-old could do nothing about the result as Bafana fell to the West African for the very first time.