A final weekend of surprises and excitement confirmed the 16 teams to take part in the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, and true to this instalment of the form book, the only thing expected was the unexpected. 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hosts South Africa and the continent’s most populace nation Nigeria failed to win at home and they joined already-eliminated Egypt and Cameroon on the sidelines for January’s tournament. It was a startling campaign for many of the traditional powers in Africa with only two winners from the previous 14 events - Côte d’Ivoire and Tunisia - reaching the finals to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
On the flip side, Niger will play in their first African showpiece despite losing 3-0 to Egypt in American Bob Bradley’s first match in charge of the Pharaohs. The Mena ended up even on nine points with South Africa and Sierra Leone, who drew 0-0 in Nelspruit when a win would have put either through, but Niger finished top of Group G based on the three teams’ results against each other. It was a stunning blow for Bafana Bafana, who celebrated after Saturday's match thinking that their better overall and head-to-head goal differences against the Nigeriens were enough to give them the tie-breaker.
But the Sahelian nation, who won zero away points while winning all three matches at home, join already-in Botswana in qualifying for their first finals. Afterwards South Africa coach Pitso Mosimane lamented the confusion, saying that he would have made different substitutions had he known the 1996 champions were on the outside looking in. "It's very sad for South Africa because the country deserves to be in next year's AFCON,” said the coach. “I feel like I have failed."
Equally despondent was Nigeria coach Samson Siasia, whose side drew with Guinea 2-2 in Abuja with all four goals coming in the final half hour. The former international apologised to the football-mad nation for not finding the result to take them over the Syli Nationale, who topped Group B with four wins and two draws. The Super Eagles needed to win 1-0 or by two clear goals going into the match, and that task became much taller against the impressive Guineans after Ismael Bangoura opened the scoring. “We dominated the game and we created chances, but we failed to take those,” said the coach of the two-time African champions. "We understand the frustration of the fans because they love their team so much. But sometimes, football can be cruel."
There was also heartbreak for Uganda, who could only manage a scoreless draw at home with Kenya, which allowed Angola to win Group J by a point. The Cranes had a four point lead over the Angolans with two rounds to play, but their campaign came unstuck just when it seemed they would reach their first AFCON since 1978.
Libyan joy among some normalcy
Along with debutantes Niger, Botswana and Equatorial Guinea, Libya have the least amount of finals experience, having played in just two previous tournaments, in 1982 and 2006. But after an undefeated campaign in Group C made all the more remarkable by having to play five of their six matches away in the midst of turmoil in their country, the Libyans managed a scoreless draw in Zambia that was enough to send them through as one of the two best second-placed sides, while the Zambians finished one point ahead of their guests to win the group.
But expectations were not all overturned. In Group A, Mali held on for a 2-2 draw in Liberia to qualify ahead of tiny Cape Verde Islands based only on head-to-head goal difference after they both finished with 10 points. The 2004 champions Tunisia beat Togo 2-0, which gave them second spot in Group K ahead of Malawi, who gave up a late goal in Chad to draw 2-2. Africa’s most successful side in the last two FIFA World Cups, Ghana, flexed their muscles to beat Sudan 2-0 in Khartoum and claim top position in Group I. The Black Stars got goals from Asamoah Gyan and John Mensah to finish with five wins and a draw, while Sudan also qualified as one of the best second-place teams. Morocco ended up atop Group D after a 3-1 victory over Tanzania on Sunday that was spurred on by previously outcast Adel Taarabt.
In other action, Cameroon salvaged some pride from their unsuccessful efforts with a 3-2 win in DR Congo where they came from behind twice. They still finished five points behind Group E winners Senegal, who coasted past Mauritius 2-0 on Sunday. In Group F, Gambia put a blemish on Burkina Faso’s previously perfect record with a 1-1 draw, although the Stallions had already qualified. Group H’s Côte d’Ivoire proved themselves the class of qualifying by beating Burundi 2-1 in Abidjan to become the only side to end up with a perfect record, which should add to the belief that they will be favourites to win in January.