The Comoros Islands were not expected to reach the knockout rounds of the Africa Cup of Nations. The nation of 860,000 people had never played on the biggest stage of African football until now.
And the Coelecanths had the most unlikely qualification to the round of 16 until they faced hosts Cameroon on Monday night.
Having lost their first two group games against Gabon and Morocco, they defeated Ghana 3-2 to grab a lifeline. But they needed other results to go their way to book one of the four remaining tickets for the knockout phase for the best third-placed teams.
And that is where it got complex. Nigeria and Egypt needed to win their games against Guinea Bissau and Sudan respectively. Equatorial Guinea needed to beat Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast also had to get a win against Algeria. Any other results and the tiny Indian Ocean team would have been on the way home.
As impossible as it looked, the stars aligned for the Islanders as all the results turned out in their favour.
Ahead of the last-16 game against overwhelming favorites Cameroon, the biggest challenges started off the pitch. Their number one goalkeeper Ali Ahamada tested positive for COVID-19 while his two deputies were also injured.
The team had to turn defender Chaker Alhadhur, into a makeshift goalkeeper for the game.
Once the game kicked off, the Coelecanths were undone early as captain Jimmy Abdoul was sent off on seven minutes for stepping on the ankle of Moumi Ngamaleu. But they tried to stay disciplined and kept their shape while building their attack from the back, until they were prised open by a Karl Toko Ekambi goal on the half hour.
The early red card to captain Jimmy Abdoul affected the Comoros
Despite their numerical advantage, Cameroon struggled to increase their lead and Comoros surged forward in search of an equalizer. They fought bravely until the second half when Vincent Aboubakar finally doubled the hosts’ advantage and took his tally for the tournament to six.
With the game nearing its end, the Comoros had a glimmer of hope as Youssouf M’Changama fired a free kick past Andre Onana to set up a nail-biting finish to the game.
But it was too little, too late, However, Cameroon’s 2-1 win flattered the Indomitable Lions. The victory was marred though by a stampede outside the stadium that left several people dead.
Even though Comoros lost, they left the tournament with their pride in place and a continent applauding their performance. And for all who would have struggled to point out the country on a map, they certainly gave everyone a huge geography lesson.
Debutants Gambia progressed to the quarterfinals with a 1-0 victory against Guinea on Monday. The Scorpions, who are the lowest ranked team at the competition, have been a revelation so far. Musa Barrow scored the game’s only goal in the 71st minute.
Gambia celebrate Musa Barrow’s goal
Gambia will now face hosts Cameroon on Saturday with a place in the semifinals up for grabs.
Edited by: Rob Turner