SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Nigeria and South Africa both missed out on next year's African Cup of Nations after disappointing and contrasting draws in Saturday's round of qualifying games.
Ibrahima Diallo's late equalizer in Abuja saw Guinea rally for a 2-2 draw against Nigeria while South Africa prematurely celebrated its 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone wrongly thinking it had advanced.
Both teams joined an impressive list of absentees that included fellow former champions Egypt and Cameroon, while Tunisia is the only one of the last of nine African champions to reach next year's continental championship.
In a dramatic - and in South Africa's case farcical - penultimate day of qualifying for the African Cup, Mali, Guinea, Zambia, Niger, Ghana and Angola went through as group winners and Libya clinched one of the two spots for the best second-placed teams.
Despite a 3-0 loss at Egypt, Niger reached its first African Cup of Nations and major tournament for the first time after emerging from the Group G tie between it, South Africa and Sierra Leone with the better head-to-head points total.
Those countries joined co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and already-qualified Botswana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Burkina Faso at the 16-team tournament in January and February.
One more group winner and the second runners-up spot will be decided in the final five matches of a 13-month qualifying competition on Sunday.
In Nelspruit, South Africa thought it was through on goal difference and Bafana Bafana players celebrated with dancing in front of fans and a lap of honor as coach Pitso Mosimane hugged members of his technical team. But Niger took the automatic spot through the tiebreaker after all three finished locked on nine points.
''Did we qualify? What do you think?'' Mosimane said as confusion reigned. ''If we've qualified I'm very happy. I don't know.''
Niger players, meanwhile, didn't celebrate even though it finally reached its first African Cup of Nations after 41 years of trying.
Four-time African champion Ghana beat Sudan 2-0 in Khartoum through goals by Asamoah Gyan and John Mensah inside 17 minutes to seal its place as Group I winner despite defender Isaac Vorsah's red card.
Tunisia beat Togo 2-0 but only squeezed through after Malawi conceded a late equalizer in a 2-2 draw with Chad in Group K. Tunisia gained one of two automatic spots in the five-team group with Botswana taking the other.
Libya shook off the distractions of its own domestic problems and being forced to play ''home'' games away by qualifying from a 0-0 draw in Zambia.
The Libyan players wore new uniforms to reflect the change of leadership in their country and sang their new anthem under a new flag before qualifying out of Group C.
Mali was held to a 2-2 draw in Liberia but also sneaked through despite pressure from tiny Cape Verde, which beat Zimbabwe 2-1. Mali and Cape Verde finished on 10 points but the Malians qualified because of their better record against the unheralded nation which was chasing its first Cup of Nations appearance.
Angola won 2-0 in Guinea-Bissau to edge out Uganda after it lost its Group J lead with a 0-0 draw at home to Kenya. Uganda had needed to match Angola's result to reach its first African Cup since 1978.
On Sunday, Morocco plays Central African Republic for Group D's lone spot with both teams tied on eight points.
Ivory Coast is looking for a sixth straight group win when it plays Burundi.