Hoping to become the first nation from the east of the continent to compete at the global football showcase, the ‘Waliya Antelopes’ lost 2-1 at home to the ‘Super Eagles’.
The first-leg play-off result leaves Ethiopia needing to score at least twice in the November 16 return match to reach the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw, credited with a major role in reviving Ethiopia after three decades in the doldrums, laid the blame for the Addis Ababa loss with the Cameroonian referee.
“We lost the game because the referee was poor,” Bishaw told reporters after the Antelopes suffered a first home defeat in five qualifying games.
“We scored a goal that he cancelled and the referee also did other things that were questionable.”
Salahdin Ahmed believed his close-range poke crossed the goal-line midway through the opening half before Godfrey Oboabona cleared the ball.
The referee waved play on before a capacity 35,000 crowd and television replays of the incident were inconclusive.
Bishaw, a stern-faced 61-year-old former biology teacher who has coached only the national team, also admitted Ethiopian shortcomings.
“After taking the lead we thought it would be easy, but we could not match the pace of the Nigerians after they equalised.”
The coach conceded that the introduction of Omod Okwury and Addis Hintsa during the second half did not have the desired effect.
Ethiopia captain and defender Degu Debebe blamed the defeat on squandered scoring chances during the opening half.
“We missed some good chances,” he conceded, referring to wild shooting by Girma Adane after slick, short passes created openings.
Emmanuel Emenike won the match with a last-minute penalty after earlier cancelling the lead Behailu Assefa gave Ethiopia soon after half-time.
Algeria were another team furious at a refereeing decision after losing 3-2 to Burkina Faso in a Ouagadougou thriller.
Television replays suggested the home team should not have been awarded the late penalty Aristide Bance converted to give the ‘Stallions’ victory.
The Zambian match official awarded the spot-kick for hand-ball, but Essaid Belkalem appeared to have his arms behind his back when the ball struck him on the chest.
“That scandalous decision destabilised our team — it was one of many unfair calls made against us,” said unused substitute Abdelmoumene Djabou.
“We deserved a draw and I want to tell Burkina Faso that they have no chance when we meet again next month,” the midfielder added.
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi was happy with a 3-1 victory over Senegal in Abidjan, but blamed his players for conceding a goal six minutes into stoppage time.
“I am disappointed by the attitude of the players during additional time. I would have said that we had qualified were it not for the goal Senegal scored.”
Senegal coach and former France superstar Alain Giresse blamed a disastrous start that saw his side trail by two goals after 14 minutes.
“We failed to recover but nothing is lost — we have the means to fight and qualify. It is not an impossible task and we will work towards it.”
Tunisia were held 0-0 at home by Cameroon in another play-off and the much-anticipated first leg between Ghana and Egypt will take place in Kumasi on Tuesday.