Ghana cruised into the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals on Monday by hammering Niger 3-0, while Mali joined them with a 1-1 draw against the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
Captain Asamoah Gyan, recalled Christian Atsu and defender John Boye scored for the Black Stars, while Niger were furious that a legitimate early equalizer from Koffi Dan Kowa was disallowed in Port Elizabeth.
Rocked after conceding a third-minute goal, last year’s bronze medalists Mali fought back to level before the end of the first quarter in Durban and had three late chances to collect maximum points.
Qualification was a pleasant diversion for the troubled west African nation, where troops are fighting armed Islamist groups in the north.
“Our country is in one of the most difficult moments of its history. Malians are regaining control of the north and our qualification will bring joy to the people. I am very proud,” emotional Mali captain Seydou Keita said.
Ghana collected seven points, Mali four, DR Congo three and Niger one from a mini-league that failed to match the final-round drama generated by Group A the previous day, when hosts South Africa and debutants Cape Verde qualified.
Former winners South Africa face 1972 runners-up Mali at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Saturday and four-time champions Ghana tackle Cape Verde in Port Elizabeth earlier the same day.
Niger, who conceded only one goal in matches against Mali and DR Congo, fell behind after only six minutes at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium as Gyan fired past Daouda Kassaly.
However, the Black Stars were lucky three minutes later, when the Senegalese referee disallowed a Niger goal because he wrongly believed goalkeeper Fatau Dauda had been fouled.
Big-screen replays showed Dauda falling awkwardly after colliding with a teammate, and Ghana took advantage of the let-off to double their lead midway through the opening half, when Atsu struck.
Any doubts about the outcome were laid to rest four minutes into the second half as Boye, sporting a peroxide cross in his hair, latched on to a rebound and netted.
“We stepped up our game and won against a good Niger team,” said Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah, a member of the last Black Stars team to win the Cup of Nations, 31 years ago.
“I am proud of my players, despite the loss. They displayed courage and the future is bright. We were up against a better, faster team today,” Niger coach Gernot Rohr said.
A proud record of making the knockout stages in every Cup of Nations appearance as a coach ended for veteran Frenchman Claude Le Roy when the Congolese were eliminated.
Le Roy was coaching at the tournament for a record seventh time, having guided Cameroon to two finals, Senegal to fourth place and the quarter-finals, Ghana to third place and DR Congo to the last eight during a previous spell in charge.
“We had control of the game, but did not create enough dangerous situations and Mali equalized too fast. We did not have enough experience for this tournament,” Le Roy said.
Tresor LuaLua Lomana struck a post within 20 seconds of the kick-off for the Leopards and they were awarded a penalty 10 seconds later, when Mohammed Lamine Sissoko tripped Yves Diba.
Mali Goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa dived the right way, but could not prevent Dieumerci Mbokani scoring.
Comical defending allowed Mali to level after 14 minutes as several attempts to clear the ball were botched, and when it was cut back to Mahamadou Samassa he made no mistake.
However, the game steadily faded as a spectacle and Mali came closest to winning in the second half through substitutes Kalilou Traore and Cheikh Tidiane Diabate and Keita.
“It was emotionally difficult knowing what was happening in the Ghana game and realizing we needed just a point. We need to keep up our intensity,” Mali coach Patrice Carteron said.