JOHANNESBURG, November 20- Ebola-ravaged Guinea defied the odds to reach the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations while the murder of South Africa captain Senzo Meyiwa cast a dark shadow over the qualifying competition.
Forced to switch three fixtures from Conakry to Casablanca, the Guineans defeated Uganda 2-0 at ‘home’ in a winners-take-all showdown Wednesday to secure a place among 16 finalists.
Coached by Frenchman Michel Dussuyer, Guinea rely mainly on professionals scattered across Europe like Slovakia-based striker Seydouba Soumah, who struck five goals.
Guinea and fellow west African states Liberia and Sierra Leone have been hardest hit by the deadly Ebola virus, which has claimed nearly 5,200 lives this year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Goalkeeper Meyiwa, 27, kept four consecutive clean sheets to set up South Africa for a return to the biennial African football showcase after a three-tournament absence.
The hugely popular star was gunned down by armed robbers while visiting his pop singer girlfriend near Johannesburg last month ahead of the final two qualifiers.
Replacement goalkeeper Darren Keet sported a moving, handwritten quote from The Bible on his gloves for the qualification-clinching victory over Sudan in Durban.
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend,” were the words chosen by Belgium-based Keet.
A dramatic qualifying competition included the shock elimination of title-holders Nigeria and a third consecutive failure to reach the finals by record seven-time champions Egypt.
Cameroon are back at the Cup of Nations after missing the last two tournaments and Algeria collected 15 points from a possible 18 to show why they are the top-ranked national team on the continent.
There was also an Ebola-related, last-minute change of hosts for the January 17-February 8 football festival with football minnows Equatorial Guinea replacing Morocco.
Fearing visiting supporters would bring the virus into the north African kingdom, Morocco insisted that the Cup of Nations be postponed at least until next June.
– Pride of all Africans –
But African Football Confederation (CAF) supremo Issa Hayatou and his executives refused to budge from the original dates, noting that Morocco would host the FIFA Club World Cup this December.
“Postponing the Cup of Nations would be like signing our death warrant,” stressed Cameroonian Hayatou, who was elected CAF president in Morocco 26 years ago.
“We have patiently built this tournament for 57 years and today it is the pride of all Africans.”
African Union (AU) chairwoman Nkosazama Dlamini-Zuma from South Africa backed CAF, saying “Ebola should not paralyse continental events”.
As hosts, an Equatorial Guinea team ranked 38 among 54 African football nations automatically earn a place at the three-week Cup of Nations.
This is quite a turnaround for a side disqualified after a preliminary-round win over Mauritania for fielding an ineligible Cameroon-born footballer.
A disastrous start that yielded just one point from matches against Congo Brazzaville, South Africa and Sudan triggered the downfall of three-time champions Nigeria.
Uncertainty over 2013 Cup of Nations-winning coach Stephen Keshi did not help the Super Eagles either as he was hired, fired and hired again during the six-match campaign.
Egypt will miss three consecutive tournaments for the first time since becoming the maiden African champions in 1957 in Khartoum.
Age has caught up with the golden 2006-2010 generation led by midfield maestro Mohamed Abou Trika that won three consecutive titles, and coach Shawky Gharib could not unearth adequate replacements.
Cameroon put a woeful 2014 World Cup in Brazil behind them with German coach Volker Finke deploying a more youthful side that finished four points ahead of star-stacked Ivory Coast in a tough group.
Algeria were the most impressive African side at the World Cup, taking eventual champions Germany to extra time before losing narrowly.
A change of coach with Frenchman Christian Gourcuff succeeding Turkey-bound Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic had no effect on the Desert Foxes, who secured qualification with two games to spare.
They will be joined at the finals by Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia.
Equatorial Guinea capital Malabo will host a December 3 draw to separate the 16 countries into four groups.