Hosts Equatorial Guinea and Claude Le Roy’s Congo Brazzaville defied the odds to become the first teams to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday.
The duo were considered the outsiders in Group A when the competition began, but Congo advanced in first place after beating Burkina Faso 2-1 in Ebebiyin while Equatorial Guinea sunk Gabon 2-0 amid emotional scenes in Bata.
After drawing their first two matches at the tournament, the Nzalang Nacional had to beat Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon to go through and did so to match their achievement of reaching the last eight as co-hosts in 2012.
A disputed 55th-minute penalty, won and converted by former Real Madrid forward Javier Balboa, set Equatorial Guinea on their way in front of a sell-out 35,000 crowd before Spanish-born substitute Iban Edu secured the win four minutes from time.
Tears of joy from some home players greeted the final whistle and celebrations spilled over onto the streets as the nation soaked up a success that was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago.
Last summer they were disqualified from the competition for fielding an ineligible player in a qualifier against Mauritania, only to be reinstated as the replacement hosts following Morocco’s withdrawal over Ebola fears.
But coach Esteban Becker hardly had any time to put together a competitive team after being appointed at the start of this month, and he later described the triumph as a “Cinderella story”.
“The poor team beat the rich team on merit, thanks to their sacrifice, their commitment, their pride and their passion,” he said.
“This squad only came together 20 days ago in Madrid, then we went to Lisbon and put in place a style of play with optimism.
“We were convinced in every training session that we could go far. To be in the top eight in Africa is an honour for such a small nation.”
For Gabon, who only needed a draw to go through, there was a feeling of injustice, with Aubameyang saying the Ivorian referee erred in awarding the hosts a penalty for a foul on Balboa by Lloyd Palun.
“It’s really upsetting because at this level referees should not be allowed to make mistakes like that,” said the Borussia Dortmund star.
While Gabon go home, Equatorial Guinea advance to a quarter-final in Ebebiyin against the runners-up from Group B.
– Le Roy does it again –
Congo won the group after beating Burkina Faso as veteran French coach Le Roy celebrated another remarkable success story in the African game.
Having claimed their first win at the finals in 41 years when they beat Gabon in midweek, Congo needed only a draw against the 2013 runners-up but they made it two wins on the bounce all the same.
Thievy Bifouma’s second goal of the tournament gave Congo the lead early in the second half and Fabrice Ondama clinched the win in the 88th minute just after Aristide Bance had levelled for the Stallions.
Congo are through to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1992, while Le Roy has now reached the knockout stage of the African football showcase seven times in eight attempts with five different countries.
“It’s incredible. I feel a lot of emotion and incredible happiness. These guys are incredible,” said Le Roy, whose side, like Equatorial Guinea, might never have been at the finals in the first place.
Beaten on penalties by Rwanda in the second round of qualifiers in August, they were allowed back in when Rwanda were punished for fielding an ineligible player and then came through their final qualifying group ahead of 2013 champions Nigeria.
“We have come from nowhere. Anything that happens from now on is a bonus,” added Le Roy, whose side will now return to Bata to face the Group B runners-up next Saturday.
A wide open Group B concludes on Monday, when Tunisia need only draw with DR Congo in Bata to advance, while Zambia, the 2012 champions, must beat Cape Verde to keep alive their hopes of going through.