Brave 10-man Comoros Islands battled hard but were undone in a 2-1 loss to Cameroon on Monday having received an early red card and having to play the entire 90 minutes with an outfield player in goal.
Karl Toko Ekambi and Vincent Aboubakar scored home team’s goals at the Olembe Stadium to eliminate the debutants, who will have won plenty of plaudits for their performance.
Comoros put on a gallant fight and despite the disadvantages pulled a goal back from Youssouf Mchangama with nine minutes left to depart the tournament with their reputations considerably enhanced.
Ravaged by COVID-19 infections, the Comoros had no goalkeeper available for the game, pressing ganging left back Chaker Alhadhur into service, plus had to do without coach Amir Abdou, who is also in quarantine.
The situation worsened considerably six minutes into the game when captain Nadjim Abdou was dismissed for a lunging tackle that caught Nicolas Moumi on the Achilles tendon.
The red card, however, was only issued after the Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema had been advised to review the incident on the pitch side VAR screen.
Cameroon, five-time African champions, went on the attack from the start but were met by spirited resistance.
Their first efforts from Aboubakar and Toko Ekambi were both wide of the target, failing to test the makeshift goalkeeper, before a simple inside pass from captain Aboubakar left Toko Ekambi with an easy finish to open the score in the 29th minute.
Alhadhur made several sharp, albeit unorthodox saves, to keep Cameroon at bay until Aboubkar slipped around the defence to latch onto a clever through pass and make it 2-0 with 20 minutes left.
But Comoros were in no mind to pack the defence and keep down the score and El Fardou Ben Mohamed force a flying save out of Andre Onana in the 79th minute before Mchangama then beat the Indomitable Lions goalkeeper with a superb long range freekick.
All three goalkeepers for the small island nation had been ruled out of the match on the eve of the tie – one through injury and two after testing COVID-19 positive last week.
But Ali Ahamada returned a new negative test and was pronounced fit to play by the Comoros Football Federation in a medical bulletin on Monday, only for his participation to be later ruled out by the Confederation of African Football, whose medical commission said any player who had been in quarantine would have to wait a minimum of five days before being allowed to return to play.
Instead, the Comoros fielded the 30-year-old leftback Alhadhur, who had his squad number plastered on an oversized goalkeeping jersey and whose first touch was to head the ball clear from the edge of his box. He did not make an actual save until late in the first half.
Tournament rules state that teams must play as long as they have a minimum of 11 players available. If they have no goalkeeper available, another player must play in that position.