BATA, Equatorial Guinea (AFP) – 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.”