- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - The width of a goalpost denied host Gabon a place in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations on Sunday, with the desperate home team’s fate sealed by a 0-0 draw with Cameroon and an agonizing miss in the dying seconds.

The draw with Cameroon, combined with Burkina Faso’s 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau in the final round of Group A games, saw Cameroon and Burkina Faso go through to the quarterfinals and Gabon slide out.

It became the first host of the African Cup in 23 years to fail to make the knockout stage and Gabonese players lay on the field exhausted and dejected at the final whistle. The home fans, some of whom started leaving with 10 minutes to go, didn’t even stick around to applaud them for the effort.

“We played the three games with our hearts, we did our best, but we did not qualify,” coach Jose Antonio Camacho said. “It is very sad.”

As those Gabon fans rapidly filed out Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville, leaving the stands almost completely deserted within minutes of the end, a small pocket of the Cameroon supporters decided to run onto the field to celebrate qualifying.

Cameroon, a four-time African champion that has underperformed badly at the African Cup recently, was within the width of that goalpost of going out.

If Denis Bouanga’s shot deep into injury had gone in and not hit the post, Cameroon would have been eliminated and Gabon and Burkina Faso would advance. Gabon also missed with a follow-up shot that was saved brilliantly by Cameroon goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa in the last meaningful act of the game.

“The most difficult thing is done,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to qualify for the quarterfinals.”

In fact, Cameron can imagine, having last reached the business end of the African Cup four tournaments ago, a poor run that has finally turned around for one of Africa’s top teams.

In contrast, Gabon was the lowest-ranked team at this cup so the result was not a huge shock on form, but it could dampen the spirit of the African championship, which didn’t have great crowds anyway away from Gabon’s games and will likely be affected by the home team’s failure.

There have also been murmurs of discontent in Gabon over this tournament - the second time Gabon has hosted it in five years - and the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent again. That will look like a waste now, even to the most ardent Gabonese soccer fans.

Gabon also appears to be an unhappy country away from football after tense elections last year returned President Ali Bongo Ondimba to power amid violence on the streets and cries of foul play by opposition parties.

The African Cup has not been disrupted by any political protests, as some feared, but just to make sure soldiers armed with batons lined the exits at Stade de l’Amitie on Sunday night shortly after the end of the game.

By then, most of the fans had drained away anyway.

They saw their team spurn two golden opportunities to win in a frustrating night.

First, striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the star of the team and one of the top forwards in Europe, inexplicably missed from a meter (yard) out from goal in the fourth minute. Waiting for a cross at the far post, Aubameyang, with an open goal right in front of him, tapped his shot wide.

Bouanga’s miss at the very end was even tougher to take for the Gabonese, who will now watch from the sidelines of their tournament for the next two weeks.

Burkina Faso finished top of the group after beating tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the city of Franceville, taking first place in Group A from Cameroon.

Burkina Faso benefited from an own goal by Rudinilson Silva in the 12th and a goal by Bertrand Traore in the 57th

Burkina Faso’s quarterfinal opponent is still to be decided, but Cameroon will play title favorite Senegal.

“They are said to be the best team, but this is only words,” Cameroon coach Broos said of Senegal.


Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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