The final round of group qualifying matches for next year’s African Nations Cup finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea were played this weekend. The big news: Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria and Egypt were knocked out and small footballing nations Botswana, Libya and Sudan qualified.

The weirdest plot line, however, came in Group G.

There South Africa, Sierra Leone and Niger all ended tied in first place, all with 9 points. Egypt was already eliminated with 5 points. On Saturday night the South Africans played to a goalless draw with an ascendant Sierra Leone (the latter’s form surprised everybody). At that same time, in Cairo, Egypt’s under 23 selection beat Niger 3-0.  South Africa had beaten Egypt 1-0 and played to a goalless draw when they met in group games. They also had the best goal record and so assumed they qualified.  The South Africans–believing they’d qualified–started celebrating wildly; the players even taking a victory lap. However, CAF (the controlling body for football on the continent) soon brought an end to that when it cited some obscure competition rule by which Niger would be declared group winners.

Basically, in terms of the rule 14 of the competition, at the end of group play if three teams shared the top spot,  they would formed a new mini-league and CAF only considered results of head-to-head matches between those teams, i.e. Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone. In terms of this formula Niger finished with 6 points and South Africa and Sierra Leone with 5. Niger therefore qualified to the final phase.

It’s complicated.

The South Africans now say they’ll appeal the ruling, but it looks more like saving face with the supporters. But it is also a case of history repeating itself when it comes to the national football team.  Remember the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea when South Africa let Spain and Paraguay decide their fate on the final day of group matches. This also happened in their final group match of the 2010 World Cup when they stopped playing after scoring 2 goals (they needed 4 unanswered goals) against a demoralized France.

* Here’s the list of final participants for CAN 2012: The hosts Gabon and Equitorial Guinea (who qualified automatically), Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Zambia, Angola, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, Morocco; Libya and Sudan

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