Dominant but largely sloppy and wasteful Malawi's Flames ended their campaign on a high following a 1-0 home win that shattered Swaziland's faint qualifying dream in Blantyre on Sunday.
Bidvest Wits' midfielder, Gerald Phiri Junior, scored with a terrific eighth minute free-kick as the already eliminated Malawi earned their first win in Group L to finish on five points and still bottom.
However, the biggest losers of the cloudless afternoon were the visitors whose dream for one of the two best runners-up spots vanished into the thin air in front of the partisan crowd.
The Swazis finished second on eight points, tied with Guinea, who beat leaders Zimbabwe 1-0 in Conakry. Zimbabwe topped Group L on 11 points.
To hand caretaker coach Nsanzurwimo Ramadhan a first win, Phiri stepped forward to slice the ball into the net past goalkeeper Nhlanhla Gwebu after striker Gastin Simkonda was fouled in the eighth minute.
The goal came against the run of play as a minute earlier Swaziland forward Felix Badenhorst, was gifted possession in front of goal after collecting a misplaced back pass.
Badenhorst shot against advancing Malawi keeper Charles Swini who had rushed to dive and narrow the shooting angle, much to the relief of the home crowd.
The Flames kept dominating possession in midfield and Gabadinho Mhango was unfortunate to send his shot from range crashing against the bar.
Mhango was the busiest, flicking the ball into the box but Phiri misjudged the flight of the ball and Swaziland survived.
Malawi substitute Peter Wadabwa, too, had his header from Chimango Kayira's free-kick bouncing off the frame late in the second half after replacing Simkonda.
The Flames only participations at the AFCON were in 1984 and 2010 in Cote d'Ivoire and Angola respectively.
Nsanzurwimo Ramadhan (Interim coach, Malawi)
We were under so much pressure as we had lost most of the games in the group, hence confidence and self-belief was very low. If it were not for the pressure we should have scored five or six goals. We were too desperate for a result. I am happy with what I saw. We have a good squad.
Harris Bulungu (Head Coach, Swaziland)
We came so close but it was not to be. It is part of football and such things happen. There is nothing we can do. We cannot change the result. I am still proud of the boys. When we started this campaign, nobody gave us a chance but we tried our best and came so close. I think we did the people of Swaziland proud considering that we come from a small country and we were able to compete against big teams such as Malawi.
Source: Confederation of African Football.