JOHANNESBURG: Egypt’s hopes of defending its title at next year’s African Cup of Nations are all but gone after the seven-time continental champion was held to a damaging 0-0 draw at home by South Africa in qualifying on Sunday.
Egypt — which has won Africa’s top football tournament three times in a row — is now almost certain to fail to qualify for the first time in 33 years.
Egypt remains bottom of its group, six points off leader South Africa with two games to go and with little chance of making Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in 2012 — even as one of the two best second-place teams.
Ivory Coast has qualified after a 6-2 win for Didier Drogba’s team away at Benin. Ivory Coast is the second country — after surprise package Botswana — to claim one of the 14 finals places on offer in Africa’s 44-team qualifying competition.
There were 14 games across the continent on Sunday as the competition passed the halfway mark.
A late equalizer by captain Joseph Yobo rescued a point for Nigeria in Ethiopia, Sudan won to keep the pressure on top-ranked African team Ghana, Libya was held to a surprise 1-1 draw by Comoros and under-pressure Tunisia beat Chad 5-0 to revive its campaign.
A desperate Egypt’s Group G fixture with South Africa was moved to a military stadium in Cairo because of the threat of crowd trouble, due to the African champion’s disastrous form and recent sectarian violence in the city.
In a tense match with few clear-cut chances, South Africa defended for long spells to claim a valuable point for their own hopes — leaving Egypt still winless and on the brink of a shock elimination.
The Pharaohs last failed to qualify for the African championship in 1978 and have dominated the tournament over the past five years.
South Africa — which played without injured captain and playmaker Steven Pienaar — leads the group by two points from Niger.
"I’m happy with this result because we drew with the champions of Africa in Cairo," South Africa coach Pitso Mosimane said.
Four days after a surprise 4-1 win over Argentina — which is being investigated by FIFA for match-fixing links — Nigeria needed Yobo’s late goal to rally to a 2-2 draw away at Ethiopia in Group B.
Despite first-half dominance from Ethiopia — under Belgian coach Tom Santfiet for the first time — Ikechukwu Uche put Nigeria ahead in the 26th minute.
A double by Saladin Said then had the home team leading before Yobo rescued a point for Nigeria, which had played two games in five days and looked fatigued after arriving in Addis Ababa at 2 a.m. on the day of the match.
"We didn’t play like we were supposed to," Nigeria coach Samson Sia said. "We made too many mistakes."
Nigeria trails group leader Guinea by three points after the Guineans beat Madagascar 4-1 at home.
Drogba and Gervinho both scored twice as Ivory Coast improved its perfect record to four wins in four matches to seal its place at the next Cup of Nations.
Ivory Coast raced 3-0 ahead in Benin inside 30 minutes through Didier Ya Konan, Drogba and Gervinho. Benin staged a brief second-half fightback, pulling back to 3-2, but the Ivorians were too strong. Burundi’s victory over Rwanda in the other Group H fixture meant Ivory Coast can’t be caught at the top.
Botswana — which had already qualified — drew 0-0 at home with Malawi and Tunisia’s comprehensive home win over Chad pushes the Tunisians ahead of Malawi on goal difference in a tight race for the second qualifying place in the five-team Group K.
Issam Jemaa hit a hattrick for 2004 African Cup winner Tunisia to inspire victory.
Libya missed the chance to reclaim top spot in Group C when it drew with Comoros and Mali fell to a 2-1 defeat against Group A opponent Zimbabwe in a dramatic finish.
The Zimbabweans were awarded a last-minute penalty in Harare, which sparked a mass brawl and red card for Mali’s Mahamadou Diarra. Knowledge Musona scored with a retaken spot-kick and Zimbabwe stole victory in a match it had to win to keep its hopes alive.
Elsewhere, Congo won in Mauritius, Sudan edged Swaziland 2-1 to join Ghana at the top of Group I and Angola beat Kenya 1-0.
Central African Republic surprised Tanzania 2-1 in an extra-tight Group D, where Morocco leads on goal difference after its 4-0 hammering of Algeria — one of six games on Saturday.
But Central African Republic — which is ranked 113 in the world and has never been to the Cup of Nations — is just behind after a fairytale qualifying run which has also included a win over World Cup finalist Algeria. –Luc van Kemenade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Ahmed El-Sedawy in Cairo contributed to this report.