Defending champions Zambia were knocked out as Chelsea star Victor Moses lifted Nigeria into the quarterfinals with unheralded Burkina Faso joining them at the Africa Cup of Nations on Tuesday.
Group C finished in thrilling fashion with Moses converting two late penalties to beat Ethiopia 2-0 and put Nigeria into second place behind surprise table-toppers Burkina Faso.
While this duo were celebrating progress to the knockout stage, Zambia were packing their bags after becoming the first title-holders since Algeria in 1992 to suffer a first-round exit.
The 2012 heroes were left stranded in third place after three successive stalemates, Herve Renard’s side eliminated after a closing goalless draw in Nelspruit against the Burkinabe.
Coached by Belgian Paul Put, Burkina Faso’s defence held firm in a tense, tactical affair as Zambia struggled to convert possession for the win they so badly needed.
With 11 minutes remaining Zambia were, however, still on course to pip Nigeria for the runners-up spot.
With identical points, goal difference and goals scored, they would have gone through by dint of fewer yellow and red cards than Nigeria.
That was before Moses popped up to down Ethiopia in the simultaneous match in north-western mining town Rustenburg.
“This is a victory for Nigerians where ever they are in the world,” coach Stephen Keshi said.
“This is a time for celebration.
“Now we face title favourites Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals and there will be no second chance for either side. I have a game plan but, with respect, that is for the players and not for you guys (journalists).”
Put had told his men this was their chance to write history for their country – and they didn’t let him down.
He added: “They played really well. We expected Zambia to attack and we worked on our defensive tactics for the past two days.
“It wasn’t pretty but you have to be realistic in football – the most important thing was to qualify.
“When we came here our aim was to do better than in the past, we did that by winning a game and drawing with Nigeria. Now we are in the quarters – this is our biggest achievement.”
His team will face the winner of Wednesday’s Group D game between Togo and Tunisia in Nelspruit, while Ethiopia and Zambia head for the airport.
Zambia coach Herve Renard cut a dignified figure at the post-match press conference.
“It’s better to have won something in your life than always qualify for the quarterfinals but never win anything,” the Frenchman said.
“Everybody is sad but my players did their maximum and I’m very proud of them. It’s not the end of the world.
“I loved my team tonight. I can’t play with eight defenders, if there is someone who is responsible then it’s me, not my players.”
The only low point on an otherwise memorable night for Burkina Faso was the sight of star Alain Traore – leading scorer in the competition with three goals – being stretchered off clutching his left thigh in the opening minutes.
Put said: “We’ll wait for the doctor’s report tomorrow (Wednesday), but I hope he will be okay.
“When he went off I had to tear up my plan and rethink our strategy.”
Captain Charles Kabore said the team had played in memory of goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama’s father, who died in a road accident last week.
“Abdoulaye’s father was our best supporter and we thought of him before the game.”