Equatorial Guinea sparked jubilant celebrations around the country on Sunday as the hosts snatched an unlikely African Nations Cup quarter-final place after a pulsating 2-0 win over neighbours Gabon.
The victory in Bata ensured a second-place finish in Group A behind Congo, who beat Burkina Faso 2-1 in Ebebiyin to condemn the 2013 runners-up to an embarrassing early exit.
Equatorial Guinea’s progress to the knockout stages defied all odds as they only secured a place in the tournament after stepping in as hosts at late notice in place of Morocco. As a result they had only a month to prepare for the tournament and appointed a coach just two weeks before kick off.
But the Argentine-born Esteban Becker and his young charges were the toast of the tiny African nation after second-half goals by Javier Balboa and substitute Iban Salvador gave them a memorable win in front of 35,000 roaring fans.
Having soaked up incessant pressure throughout the match, Equatorial Guinea took the lead when striker Balboa blasted home a penalty in the 55th minute after being fouled.
Substitute Salvador rounded off a swift break in the closing stages, sweeping home a rebound after Gabon keeper Didier Ovono parried an Emilio Nsue shot straight into his path.
Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Felipe Ovono was central to their success, having produced a string of superb saves to deny Gabon forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Frederic Bulot.
The win sent people on to the streets in a country better known for its torrid post-independence history but where an oil boom allowed them to step in as African Nations Cup hosts after Morocco were stripped of the right to stage the tournament when they requested a postponement due to concerns over the Ebola virus.
Equatorial Guinea have to wait until Monday to find out the identity of their quarter-final opponents when Group B is concluded but they are set to play in the 5,000-seater Ebebiyin stadium on Saturday.
Congo will return to Bata as Group A winners after Fabrice Ondama scored their winner in a 2-1 triumph over the Burkinabe. “The luck was not on our side,” Burkina Faso coach Paul Put told reporters.
Burkina Faso had a magical run through the 2013 finals but there was no resemblance of that sorcery after yet another limp performance. They had lost to Gabon and drawn 0-0 with Equatorial Guinea in their opening two group matches, reports Reuters.
Thievy Bifouma put Congo ahead in the 51st minute but the prospect of a grandstand finish was created when Burkina Faso finally scored their first goal of the tournament after more than four hours.
Aristide Bance equalised by converting a square pass from Issiaka Ouedraogo in the 86th minute to set up a potentially thrilling final four minutes only for a goalkeeping error to allow Ondama to restore Congo’s lead within one minute.
Germain Sanou punched his clearance straight onto Ondama for Congo’s winner.