Hosts Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo reached the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals on Saturday after a dramatic and controversial Bata double-header.
Former Real Madrid winger Javier Balboa scored from a dubiously awarded penalty and a free-kick as the home nation stunned Tunisia 2-1 after extra time in the main attraction at a packed 35,000-seat stadium.
Earlier, DR Congo transformed a two-goal second-half deficit into a 4-2 triumph over Congo Brazzaville with giant Dieumerci Mbokani bagging a brace.
Tunisia looked likely winners for most of their match and deserved a 70th-minute lead as Ahmed Akaichi finished off a Mohamed Yaakoubi cross.
But when Ivan Bolado fell after being challenged by Hamza Mathlouthi in stoppage time, the Mauritian referee pointed to the spot and Balboa scored.
Tunisia coach Georges Leekens raged: “It is difficult to accept the decision of the referee. This victory was certainly not merited, not in this way. We were the better team.
“This is not acceptable and it is not about the players. It is about what happened in the game. Everyone makes mistakes. This one was a big one.”
Leekens insisted Mathlouthi had “not even touched” his opponent, although big-screen replays showed contact between the players.
“I must protect my players and protect football. I have been a coach for 30 years and have experienced a lot of things and worked abroad, but we can’t accept that.”
The 102nd-minute Balboa winner was a free-kick masterclass as he curled the ball high into the corner of the net.
Tempers reached boiling point in the closing minutes as the Tunisians remained livid over the penalty and they tried to attack the referee when the final whistle blew.
Equatorial Guinea coach Esteban Becker said: “I understand the Tunisians’ anger at having lost, because they had the potential to win by several goals.
“But they didn’t do it and in the end the game went our way.”
Late inclusions in the tournament when they replaced disqualified Morocco as hosts, the Nzalang Nacional will face Ghana or Guinea in capital Malabo on Thursday for a final place.
A day before, DR Congo confront Algeria or Ivory Coast for the other spot in the February 8 climax of the biennial African football showpiece.
Ghana meet Guinea and Algeria face Ivory Coast in Malabo on Sunday, but they will struggle to match the drama that unfolded in Bata.
– Thriller –
DR Congo coach Florent Ibenge said “we never lost hope and confidence that we could win the match” as the Leopards made the semi-finals for the first time in 17 years.
“We changed tactics and formation after we went 2-0 down because I noticed the Congo defence was getting tired.”
Veteran France-born Congo coach Claude Le Roy rated the loss the “biggest disappointment” of his eight Cup of Nations appearances spanning almost two decades.
He was unhappy with the assistant referee after Congo conceded a goal when forced to play with only 10 men.
“The assistant referee delayed our substitution after one of my players was injured and we wanted to replace him, and it was at that time that they got one of their goals.”
There was barely a hint during the first half that a six-goal thriller would unfold.
DR Congo won plenty of possession, but Chancel Mbemba and Loteteka Bokila wasted half-chances, and when Jean Kasusula fired a close-range free-kick over six minutes before half-time, any spectator suggesting a goal fest was looming would have been laughed at.
If the first half was dull, the second was dramatic with Congo seemingly set for the semi-finals only to be eventually overrun by their central African neighbours.
Ferebory Dore stuck out a foot to finish off a Delvin Ndinga free-kick and the Red Devils doubled their advantage when Thievy Bifouma banged in a loose ball from close range.
It was a flattering lead as Bokila and Mbemba had been foiled by the woodwork, but when Mbokani halved the deficit via a 65th-minute tap-in, Congo collapsed.
Bokila levelled with a fierce close-range shot, a glancing Joel Kimwaki header put DR Congo ahead on 81 minutes and Mbokani struck again in stoppage time.