Johannesburg (AFP) – A dour 0-0 Africa Cup of Nations home draw with Togo on Thursday was instantly forgotten by Comoros supporters as they celebrated reaching the finals for the first time.

The southeast island state have steadily improved since being humiliated twice by Madagascar when they debuted in the 2010 edition. 

And the stalemate with bottom team Togo at Stade Maluzini in Moroni ensured a top-two finish in Group G with Egypt filling the other place a few hours later by drawing 1-1 in Kenya.

It was a situation no one predicted ahead of the first qualifiers two years ago with record seven-time African champions Egypt hot favourites and Kenya and Togo expected to slug it out for second place.

But with one round to come Monday, the team representing a state with a population approaching just 900,000 trail Mohamed Salah’s side only on goal difference with each on nine points.

Unable to attend the qualifier because of coronavirus restrictions, Comorans compensated by filling the streets of the coastal capital city to salute their heroes.

“This is our country. We are so proud. We want to get to the top now,” one jubilant supporter told AFP as cars inched by, decorated in the green of the national team.

Another fan took exception to the strictness of the police, who were faced with the impossible task of enforcing social distancing among thousands filling every metre of public space.

“How can they want to prevent us from celebrating this (qualification)? In any case, today we are not going to obey them (the police),” declared the supporter.

Apart from the residents of Moroni, many more Comorans travelled to the capital from nearby towns to join in the celebrations at the hotel where the team was based.

Even a few rounds of tear gas from the police had little impact on the overjoyed crowds, who defiantly shouted that “there is no corona(virus), there is no curfew”.

– Stuff of fairytales –

The qualification is the stuff of fairytales, and a lesson to often trigger-happy national football officials to give coaches reasonable time to develop a winning formula.

Marseille-born Amir Abdou has been in charge since 2014 and slowly but surely the team known as the Coelacanths after a rare fish has improved to a level where they can draw with Egypt in Moroni.   

The team that started against Togo are all based in Europe, but contained only three players with top-flight clubs, and one from an amateur side in France.

Meanwhile, Egypt made a dream start in Nairobi with Mohamed ‘Afsha’ Magdy blasting the ball into the net less than two minutes into the first half.

Hassan Abdallah levelled after half-time and Kenya played the last 15 minutes a man short because Johnstone Omurwa was sent off.

Gambia were another country to qualify for the first time, thanks to a 1-0 win over Angola in Bakau through a goal from Assan Ceesay, his third of the qualifying campaign.

Group D is done and dusted with Gabon joining Gambia as qualifiers after hammering the Democratic Republic of Congo 3-0 in Franceville, where Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was among the goals.

In Soweto, Ghana shrugged off the coronavirus-related absence of the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, Thomas Partey and Jeffrey Schlupp to draw 1-1 with South Africa and secure qualification. 

The goals came within three minutes soon after half-time as Mohammed Kudus put Ghana ahead and Percy Tau equalised, leaving South Africa to battle with Sudan Sunday for the other Group C ticket to the finals.

A thrilling 3-3 draw between Zambia and already-qualified Algeria in Lusaka meant Zimbabwe, who won 1-0 in Botswana, will be the other Group H qualifiers.

Emilio Nsue netted in the final minute to snatch a 1-0 win for Equatorial Guinea over Tanzania in Malabo, and qualification from Group J with table-toppers Tunisia, who triumphed 5-2 in Libya.

Despite the heavy loss, Libyans were thrilled at being able to watch the national team play at home after a seven-year ban due to post-Moamer Kadhafi era violence.