Libreville: Home hopes crumbled for Gabon in the lottery of a penalty shootout at the African Nations Cup on Sunday but Ghana’s hopeful search to end a long drought at the finals continued.
Mali beat co-hosts Gabon 5-4 on post-match kicks after extra time in Libreville to douse the passion of an expectant populace in first of the day’s quarter-final encounters. The match ended 1-1 as Mali equalised just six minutes from the end.
Ghana, seeking their first Nations Cup title in 30 years, won the later game in the provincial town of Franceville, beating Tunisia 2-1 after extra time courtesy of a goalkeeping howler.
An embarrassing mistake by Aymen Mathlouthi left him devastated at the end of a tempestuous encounter but his grief was nothing like that of Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The French-born striker, whose Mohican haircut, devastating pace and goal-scoring acumen has turned him into a national hero, was the only player to fail to convert in the penalty shootout that followed the draw in Libreville.
Aubameyang, whose goals had fired Gabon into the knockout stages, had a meek effort in the shootout saved by Mali’s Soumailia Diakite and left the field disconsolate, weeping on the shoulder of his father who was Gabon captain in the 1990s.
A near-capacity crowd at the Chinese-built stadium, newly constructed for the tournament, went silent as the realisation of their elimination sunk in.
Organisers will now have a headache attempting to fill the stadiums for Wednesday’s semi-finals as locals have largely ignored matches not involving their own teams.
Mali will meet the Ivory Coast in Libreville while Ghana go to Bata in co-host country Equatorial Guinea to meet Zambia.
Mali were six minutes from going out before snatching an equaliser from substitute Cheick Tidiane Diabate.
His 84th minute effort came after a strong run up the wing by fullback Adama Tamboura and a good cross knocked into Diabate’s path by Modibo Maiga.
But Mali spent much of the game on the back foot as Gabon’s Eric Mouloungui scored in the 55th minute and his team hit the woodwork before and after his goal.
“It is devastating to lose like this but we can also be proud what we achieved with a young side,” Mouloungui said.
Tunisia left a bitter taste as they appeared to lose their heads in the closing stages of the Franceville game with the prospect of defeat looming large.
Aymen Abdennour was red-carded for an elbow on an opponent in extra time but several other vicious tackles went unpunished as the game descended into a niggly affair with on-field scarps and repeated protests to the referee.
Ghana had found themselves in a difficult battle with a quick paced Tunisia side who came back after conceding an early goal to defender John Mensah.
Saber Khlifa equalised in the 42nd minute but the North Africans tournament ended when Mathlouthi dropped an innocuous cross in extra time right at the feet of Dede Ayew, who needed no invitation to grab Ghana’s second.