NELSPRUIT, South Africa, January 31 – Three years after the deadly Cabinda machine gun attack, Togo were celebrating an historic feat at the Africa Cup of Nations Wednesday by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time.
The 2013 first round drew to a close with Togo deservedly holding former champions Tunisia to a 1-1 draw in Nelspruit.
That was sufficent to see the little west African nation sneak past the eliminated Carthage Eagles and into the last eight.
Tunisia were following fellow north African heavyweights Algeria and Morocco on an early plane home.
Togo, as Group D runners-up, will face Burkina Faso in Nelspruit while table toppers Ivory Coast, who drew 2-2 with already eliminated Algeria in the ‘dead’ game in Rustenburg, face Nigeria.
Togo were led by talismanic captain Emmanuel Adebayor, who hid under a seat when the Togo team bus came under fire from separatists in the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda before the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola.
Two of Togo’s entourage died in the attack.
On their return to the continental showcase and making the quarters for the first time Togo have, if not banished memories of that horrific day, then at least given them and their supporters something to smile about.
Serge Gakpe put Togo into the lead at Mbombela Stadium before Khalid Mouelhi levelled from the spot.
Togo won a reprieve when Mouelhi missed a second-half penalty, his effort hitting an upright after a dubiously awarded spot-kick, one of a hatful of strange calls by South African referee Daniel Bennett.
“This is huge for Togo — the first time they have qualified for the quarter-finals. We were the little team in this group, and we’ve made it. I think there will be a big party in Lome tonight,” said Togo coach Didier Six.
Tunisa coach Samir Trabelsi said; “We did what we had to do, we dominated the play, but we lacked a bit of finishing.”
Asked at the post match press conference to comment on the referee, Trabelsi replied: “I’m not a match official, I’m not here to talk about the referee — I’m here to talk about my team.”
He added: “Am I satisfied with the outcome? Not really.”
Adebayor, who had what looked like a legitimate penalty apppeal turned down, beamed: “A place is waiting for us in history. Some well known players thought we would finish last in our group, and we’ve proved them wrong.
“This is our first qualification, I’m very happy for the team and my country, I can’t even begin to imagine what’s happening back home!”
Of the two compatriots who perished in Cabinda, Adebayor commented: “I’m thinking of them. We’re going to take five minutes to pray for them at the hotel.”
Organisers CAF, meanwhile, came in for some stick from both coaches, Trabelsi complaining about the translator at the press conference and Six about the already heavily criticised sandy pitch in Nelspruit.
“The pitch is not a problem for either Togo or Tunisia, it’s a problem for CAF, who should not allow games to be held on this pitch — they should take responsibility,” said Six.
The Frenchaman added that he would start plotting Burkina Faso’s downfall on Thursday.
“We’ll start preparing for them tomorrow — now is not the time to think about that.”
After a helter-skelter opening 12 days, the 2013 finals take a breather ahead of the quarter-finals, which begin in Port Elizabeth on Saturday with Ghana facing Cape Verde followed by hosts South Africa against Mali in Durban.
The Ivorians are first out on Sunday against Nigeria with Togo facing Burkina Faso later.