Dramatic finale for Africa
If it was drama you wanted, African World Cup qualifying was the place to be this weekend. Nigeria and Cameroon became the latest teams through to the finals - joining Ghana, Ivory Coast and hosts South Africa - but in very different circumstances.
The Indomitable Lions booked their place at an African record sixth finals with a straightforward 2-0 victory in Morocco to win Group A, but Nigeria's passage from Group B was far more convoluted. The West Africans were facing another awkward World Cup failure until Obafemi Martins' late effort saw off Kenya 3-2 in Nairobi, meaning the Super Eagles leapfrogged a Tunisian side that lost in Mozambique.
But while this was dramatic, it was nothing compared to events in Cairo. Needing to beat Group C leaders Algeria by two clear goals to stay in the hunt for South Africa, Egypt's one-goal lead deep into injury time was not enough. But in the fifth minute of stoppage time, as a nation's heart sank, substitute Emad Moteab looped home a header for a famous 2-0 win.
"We achieved victory after having lost hope," government paper Al-Gomhuriya admitted in a front-page headline. Given that both Egypt and Algeria finished tied on points, goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head records, the bitter North African rivals must meet again in a sudden-death play-off in Sudan on Wednesday.
"We played under war-like conditions," said Mohammad Rawrawa, head of the Algerian FA. "It was difficult to perform well but we will win on Wednesday because the atmosphere will be calmer."
After Amr Zaki scored after just two minutes, both sides wasted opportunities and, as the fourth official signalled for added time, Algeria had a foot in their first finals since 1986 - qualifying on goal difference - until Moteab's late, late show. The result sparked rioting in the Algerian capital Algiers, where a handful of Egyptian businesses were ransacked, and in the French port of Marseille as tensions spilled over. In and around Cairo itself, there were also incidents with 12 Egyptians and 20 Algerians injured - some of the latter being wounded after their bus was stoned. That's been a familiar theme, with some Algeria players saying the match should not have gone ahead after their bus was attacked by Egyptian youths on Thursday.
"Allowing this game to go ahead was recklessness," said midfielder Khaled Lemmouchia, one of three players who reported injuries. "In our side, some players were pallid; others were effectively paralysed before the game. We played with injured players. I had three stitches on my scalp and nobody asked me if it was of any discomfort."
Just hours before, Egypt's World Cup grip was hanging by a thread, so too was Nigeria's. Trailing Group B leaders Tunisia by two points before the game, the Super Eagles were kissing the World Cup goodbye with just seven minutes left in Nairobi and the score locked at 2-2. Kenya's Dennis Oliech and Allan Watende had cancelled out strikes from Martins and Yakubu, but then Martins hooked in a close-range second to spark wild celebrations across Nigeria.
Yet the hard-fought win would have been academic had Tunisia triumphed in Mozambique, but the under-performing Carthage Eagles lost their first qualifier since June 2008 as they went down 1-0 in Maputo. Dario Monteiro was the local hero as he rifled home after 83 minutes to fire Mozambique to their first Nations Cup since 1998.
It meant the Super Eagles, who had contested three straight World Cups before missing out in 2006, topped Group B with 12 points, one more than a stunned Tunisia - although many Nigerian fans were in similar disbelief.
"We were determined to make Nigerians happy (and) I am proud to be part of this victory," said John Mikel Obi, who broke down in tears afterwards along with Kanu and Joseph Yobo.
The twists-and-turns of Nigeria's and Egypt's fortunes mean Cameroon's qualification, thanks to a 2-0 win in Fes, seems mundane in comparison. But in reality, the Indomitable Lions worked their magic in September, when twice beating Gabon to go from bottom to top of Group A in the matter of five days.
Against a dispirited Atlas Lions side, Achille Webo opened the scoring before superstar captain Samuel Eto'o doubled the lead shortly after half-time - Cameroon's fourth straight win ensuring they finished on 13 points, four clear of second-placed Gabon. It capped a marvellous five months for French coach Paul Le Guen, who revitalised the campaign of an African giant that had also missed Germany 2006.
Now the former Lyon and PSG boss is hoping for a contract extension from the Cameroonian federation, who had given him a short-term deal with a brief to reach South Africa. "I would like to continue," he said. "And if this is also the sentiment of Cameroon football leaders, then I will. It is very likely."
In the remaining Group A tie, Floyd Ayite made sure of Togo's Nations Cup place when his goal beat Gabon 1-0 in Lome - the Togolese finishing five points ahead of Morocco, who failed to register one win in the group. That just left the small matter of who would make the Nations Cup from Group E, which Ivory Coast had won long ago. And the Elephants ended unbeaten when thumping Guinea 3-0 in Abidjan, Siaka Tiene wrapping up the scoring after Gervinho's brace.
The Guineans thus finished bottom with three points, one less than Malawi who are celebrating a first Nations Cup since 1984 - despite losing 1-0 in Burkina Faso, where Moumouni Dagano's 12th qualifying strike separated the sides.
"I am proud to be a Malawian!," said Malawian fan Lawland Suzgo Mwale in an online celebration. "We can do much better than rich countries like the 2010 World Cup hosts. We salute you boys and keep on making us proud!"
With Group D's various qualifiers having been decided last month, World Cup-bound Ghana fielded some Under-20 world champions in the 2-2 home draw with Mali. Over in Khartoum meanwhile, Sudan's hapless campaign ended with a 2-1 defeat at home to Benin, meaning the Sudanese's solitary point was eight fewer than their nearest rivals. Ghana won the group with 13 points, Benin came second with 10, while Mali boasted nine.
For the record, the 14 teams joining defending champions Egypt and hosts Angola at January's Nations Cup are Cameroon, Gabon, Togo, Nigeria, Tunisia, Mozambique, Egypt, Algeria, Zambia, Ghana, Benin, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea and the Flames of Malawi.