South Africa surrendered the lead three times to let Fifa World Cup winner Andre-Pierre Gignac’s treble inspire France to come back and claim a 4-3 win at Saitama Stadium on Sunday.
Gignac hit back each time Kobamelo Kodisang (53th-minute), Evidence Makgopa (73rd) and Teboho Mokoena (82nd) scored for South Africa, before Teji Savanier’s stoppage-time goal handed France their first victory of these Olympic Games.
The result saw South Africa drop to the foot of Group A after also losing their opening match 1-0 to Japan, leaving them on the brink of being knocked out.
It was the overaged players who showed their experience to help the French rise from the bottom to the third spot in the group.
South Africa will also rue a penalty missed by Luther Singh just before half-time.
David Notoane made three changes to the starting side which lost to Japan, bringing in Kaizer Chiefs midfielder Nkosingiphile Ngcobo for new Orlando Pirates signing Goodman Mosele.
The coach also opted for two centre-backs from the three he used in their opening match, dropping Thendo Mukumela, while Katlego Mohamme slotted in at left-back in place of Sibusiso Mabiliso.
Sporting Braga midfielder Kodisang was also handed a start as South Africa faced their much-fancied opponents captained by World Cup winner and veteran Gignac.
Another World Cup winner Florian Thauvin started together with the third French overaged player Savanier in a squad dominated by Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Serie A players.
At the start of the match, South African forwards Makgopa and Singh were haunted by lack of supply, just like in the previous match against Japan, but their penetration improved as the match went on.
France enjoyed the early exchanges with Savanier’s long-range freekick well-collected by Ronwen Williams three minutes into the match while a deflected Thauvin’s grounder almost fooled the SuperSport goalkeeper, who was lucky to see it sailing just off target.
South Africa's first real chance came in the 14th minute when Singh’s freekick drew France goalkeeper Paul Bernardoni to stretch long and pull off a brilliant save.
Two minutes later, Bernardoni was invited again to deal with Makgopa’s low drive as South Africa started gaining confidence.
Makgopa then almost produced a moment of brilliance when his volley off Singh’s feed hit the upright on 22 minutes.
Shortly after, Kodisang was denied by Bernardoni at close range, before the Sporting Braga midfielder narrowly missed the target after some nice exchanges inside the box, as Notoane’s men gave France some scary moments.
The Europeans thought they had broken the deadlock just before the half-hour mark when 35-year-old Gignac rounded Williams to score before the goal was ruled out for offside.
Williams then easily dealt with a well-struck freekick by Gignac moments later.
Then France were left off the hook when Singh agonisingly watched his penalty kick strike the crossbar five minutes before half-time after Lucas Tousart had brought down Kodisang inside the box.
Another opportunity to go for the breather leading came for the Africans but Bernardoni impressively dived to intercept Kodisang’s curler.
South Africa came back from the break with the same exuberance and two minutes into the second half, Makgopa’s shot went just over the bar, while at the other end Gignac’s turn-and-shoot effort fell into the hands of Williams.
Kodisang then took advantage of an out-of-sorts Bernardoni and Clement Michelin failing to clear a long pass from Teboho Mokoena to punish the French and break the deadlock.
But South Africa’s celebrations were short-lived as France hit back four minutes later through Gignac who, under the challenge of Tercious Malepe, poked a Randal Kolo Muani cross past Williams for the equaliser.
Attempts to reclaim the lead by South Africa paid off when Makgopa volleyed Kodisang’s cross from the right to beat Bernardoni from an acute angle.
It was now a see-saw affair as France responded again when an unmarked Gignac connected with a cross from Michelin to level matters in the 78th minute.
But after four minutes, Mokoena unleashed a trademark powerful shot which gave Bernardoni no chance as South Africa went ahead for the third time.
Then Gignac completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot four minutes from full-time, beating Willams, who had conceded the kick by clipping the legs of substitute Arnaud Nordin inside the box.
The dramatic encounter was wrapped up with Gignac now turning provider for Savanier, whose powerful shot beat Williams two minutes into stoppage time to claim victory.
Shortly after, Luke Fleurs had a chance to equalise for South Africa, but missed from point-blank range as Notoane’s men's chances of reaching the knock-out stage suffered a huge blow.
They meet Mexico in their final group game on Wednesday needing a convincing victory to stand a chance of qualifying while hoping other results go their way.