A stoppage-time Augustine Mulenga goal salvaged a 2-2 draw for favoured Zambia against South Africa in an African Nations Championship qualifier in East London Saturday.
The makeshift home team were written off by the public and media after a chaotic build-up to the final round, first leg at Buffalo City Stadium in the Indian Ocean town.
Coach Stuart Baxter was forced to free 10 of his original squad just days before the match after various clubs insisted the players were needed for pre-season training.
Despite the setbacks, South Africa were two goals ahead after 52 minutes through Gift Motupa and captain Mario Booysen and on course for a stunning victory.
Zambia coach and former striker Wedson Nyirenda reacted to the second South African goal by sending on Mike Katiba and Martin Phiri.
It took Phiri just three minutes to score and the Mulenga equaliser spared Zambian blushes ahead of the return match in Ndola next Saturday.
The overall winners will take one of three places reserved for southern African nations at the finals in Kenya next January.
"South Africa threw everything at us and we were in serious trouble when two goals behind," admitted Nyirenda.
"The substitutions turned the tide and we deserved a draw. However, we dare not take the second leg for granted just because we drew away."
England-born Baxter said: "I am massively disappointed for my team, who worked their socks off and deserved better.
"Football can be so illogical and unfair at times -- and this match was a case in point. I am not despondent, though, and we will give Zambia a good fight in the return match."
Uganda began life without long-time Serb coach Milutin "Micho" Sredojevic by thumping Rwanda 3-0 in Kampala with Moses Basena and Fred Kajoba in charge.
Sredojevic moved to South African club Orlando Pirates last week after Ugandan officials failed to pay him $64,000 (54,000 euros) in salary arrears.
Muzamiru Mutyaba bagged a first-half brace on an artificial pitch and Derrick Nsibambi completed a bigger-than-expected victory by curling the ball into net on 51 minutes.
The Ugandans are seeking a fourth consecutive appearance at the Nations Championship finals after failing to qualify for the first edition, hosted by the Ivory Coast in 2009.
Ghana, runners-up in two of the four previous tournaments, twice failed to keep a lead and had to settle for a 2-2 draw away to Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou.
Goals by Mohammed Sylla and Iliasse Sawadogo cancelled those scored by Sadiq Adans, from a penalty, and Gideon Wahdia for the visitors.
Cameroon scored in each half to win 2-0 away to minnows Sao Tome e Principe, whose "Falcons and True Parrots" nickname is among the most interesting in Africa.
In other first legs, Mauritania and 2016 runners-up Mali drew 2-2 in Nouakchott and Libya shocked Algeria 2-1 in Constantine.
Although the Nations Championship is restricted to home-based footballers, matches have full international status.