Afcon qualifying: Lesser lights take centre stage on final weekend
When the Confederation of African Football ratified an expansion to the Africa Cup of Nations in July 2017, introducing eight more teams to the biennial competition, the dynamic of the qualifying program was always going to change.
As had been the case ahead of the European Championship in 2016, for which UEFA had instigated an increase from 16 to 24 teams, many of the continent's heavyweights cruised to the tournament with games to spare.
However, an overall decrease in drama among the bigger nations -- 14 Afcon participants had already been confirmed ahead of this final weekend of qualifiers-- was accompanied by a swell of possibility and opportunity among the continent's lesser lights.
First-time qualifiers Mauritania and Madagascar had secured their passage to the tournament earlier in the campaign, and a further four sides that had never before featured on the continent's grandest stage were still 'alive' in qualification heading into the final matchday.
Ultimately, only Burundi, with child refugee Saido Berahino in the side, were able to get the result they required, as they became the success story of the weekend by holding firm to deny Gabon at home in Bujumbura.
They secured the 1-1 draw they required with a rugged display in which they largely neutralised a timid Gabon side and withstood a late barrage.
Cedric Amissi, who had opened Burundi's campaign with a goal in the 3-0 victory over South Sudan in June 2017, broke the deadlock with 14 minutes to play, but Omar Ngando put past his own goalkeeper six minutes later to set up an edgy finale.
Ultimately, in a test that will serve them well for the challenges to come in Egypt, Burundi held their nerve to oust Gabon, for whom Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was impotent after reneging on indirect threats to announce his international retirement.
The Swallows' qualification is all the more impressive considering the backdrop of domestic instability since President Nkurunziza's inauguration for a controversial third term four years ago.
Their success was one of many for the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) during the qualifying campaign, with East Africa as a bloc taking full advantage of the tournament expansion.
In recent editions, the region has been rarely represented; Uganda were the only qualifiers in 2017, as were Ethiopia in 2013 and Kenya in 2004, with none at all in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, or 2015.
This time around, however, the region will have four participants.
Tanzania joined Uganda, Kenya and Burundi in the hat when they ended their 39-year wait for qualification by thumping the Cranes 3-0 in Dar es Salaam on Sunday.
Simon Msuva opened the scoring in the 21st minute -- the first goal Uganda had conceded during a previously impeccable campaign -- before two goals in six second-half minutes killed the contest.
Incidentally, the defeated Ugandans ended their own 39-year wait to take their place among the continent's elite when they qualified for the 2017 tournament, and their capitulation on Sunday was an unexpected setback for a side that is well-drilled under Sebastien Desabre.
Qualification is only Tanzania's second since their first attempt in 1968, with their sole previous appearance coming in 1980.
The Taifa Stars, represnting Africa's sixth most populous country, owe their change in fortune to the expanded format and to the impetus provided by a new coach, Nigeria great Emmanuel Amuneke, who's successfully implementing his attractive - and ambitious - style.
Their victory, however, ended Lesotho's dreams of a maiden Afcon appearance, with Uganda's loss rendering moot the southern Africans' failure to beat Cape Verde away.
In Group K, Zambia's had capitulation opened the door for more unfamiliar faces to secure tickets to Egypt, with two out of Guinea-Bissau, first-time qualifiers in 2017, Namibia and Mozambique set to progress.
Ultimately, Guinea-Bissau got the draw they needed at home against Mozambique, with Nelson Divrassone's utter delight at putting the visitors 2-1 up in the 89th minute contrasting sharply with their heartbreak of Frederic Mendy's 90th-minute equaliser for the hosts.
Guinea-Bissau were joined by Namibia, who qualified for their third Afcon -- somewhat perversely -- with a -2 goal difference after a final day 4-1 hammering by Zambia.
While heavyweights such as Nigeria, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Senegal had already wrapped up qualification in 2018, both Cameroon and South Africa entered the final weekend with their Afcon prospects on the line.
The former had originally qualified automatically as hosts, but CAF stripped the nation of hosting rights -- amid concerns about domestic security and Cameroon's capacity to host the expanded tournament -- so they had to qualify through their Group B finish.
Various slip-ups during the early days of coach Clarence Seedorf's tenure meant they had to avoid defeat against the Comoros Island -- one of the four sides hoping for a maiden Afcon appearance heading into matchday six -- in Yaounde.
The Indomitable Lions, the reigning champions, had been held 1-1 by the same opponents in September, but their quality told, with Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Christian Bassogog and Clinton N'Jie netting as they eased their way to Egypt.
Things weren't quite so straightforward for South Africa, who travelled to Tunisia knowing they needed to avoid defeat against a gritty Libya side.
Bafana Bafana's failings in front of goal had led to dropped points against the Mediterranean Knights and the Seychelles earlier in the campaign, but there was no such profligacy on Sunday, when a double from Percy Tau -- coming either side of Ahmad Benali's penalty for Libya -- ensured they advanced.
It's been an unconvincing qualifying campaign for Stuart Baxter's side, and they had stand-in goalkeeper Darren Keet to thank for keeping the Libyans at bay.
However, the character shown in Sfax, Tunisia, allied with defensive organisation and Kamohelo Mokotjo's composed work in midfield, could set Bafana up for a successful tournament in three months' time.
Elsewhere, Benin qualified for the first time since 2010 after defeating Togo 2-1 in Group D, with Gambia's hopes having ended on Friday despite nabbing an admirable late draw against Algeria in Blida.
Angola's away victory in Botswana was enough to take them through in Group I, while simultaneously denying Burkina Faso -- third-placed finishers in 2017 -- despite their 1-0 home win over already-qualified Mauritania in Ouagadougou.
Finally, another stadium tragedy overshadowed Zimbabwe's second qualification since 2006, as one supporter was reportedly killed in a stampede as fans sought to enter the National Sports Stadium ahead of their 2-0 victory over Congo-Brazzaville in Harare.
Democratic Republic of Congo, who finished third in 2015, will join them after Cedric Bakambu's effort was enough to down Liberia in Kinshasa.
Africa Cup of Nations finalists: Egypt (hosts), Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, DR Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe.
The draw for the finals will take place at Sphinx and the Pyramids, near Cairo, on April 12.