A major refereeing error and serious security concerns overshadowed Wednesday’s games at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
The referee in charge of the Mali-Tunisia match wreaked havoc by blowing the final whistle twice too early, infuriating the coaches of the losing team and causing a long debate over whether the match should be restarted.
Mali were leading 1-0 when referee Janny Sikazwe of Zambia ended the game early in the western town of Limbe. But it was Tunisia who refused to return 30 minutes later when officials attempted to restart the game, with the coach claiming his players were already in their ice baths by then.
While the wacky scenes created more negative headlines for the tournament, there were more serious concerns outside of matches.
The Cameroon News Agency reported that a shootout between separatist rebels and government soldiers left two dead and five injured in Buea, a town 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Limbe and where the Malian squad is based. “Heavily armed” rebels fired indiscriminately near a training stadium used by the Malian team, the Cameroon news agency said.
The fighting was a stark reminder that Cameroon’s Africa Cup is not just taking place in the shadow of the coronavirus, but also during a much less publicized but violent rebellion unfolding in the west of the country. The fighting is precariously close to where Group F teams from Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania and Gambia will operate.
And if that wasn’t enough to cope with on matchday four, the audio system temporarily failed at the Limbe stadium ahead of the second game of the day, leaving Mauritanian and Gambian players waiting to sing the national anthems.
There was at least one feel-good moment: Gambian Ablie Jallow sent a shot into the top corner from outside the penalty area to give his country a 1-0 victory on their first appearance in the mainstay of continental football.
Max-Alain Gradel scored with an equally good long-range shot in the sixth minute to hand 2015 champions Ivory Coast a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea in Wednesday’s final game. That meant nine of the tournament’s first 12 games ended 1-0.
But there is no doubt that the incident was the talking point of the day.
As Mali led Tunisia 1-0, referee Sikazwe first blew for full time after just 85 minutes. He seemed to realize his big blunder and restarted the game.
He then sent off Mali substitute El Bilal Toure in the 87th minute for a reckless tackle – also a questionable decision. But Sikazwe blew full time again about 20 seconds before the 90 minutes were up, according to the stadium clock and TV broadcasts. About three minutes of additional time were expected.
The early second whistle infuriated Tunisian coach Mondher Kebaier and other members of the coaching staff. Kebaier ran to confront the referee while angrily pointing to his own watch and Sikazwe had to be escorted off the field by security guards. One of the match officials jostled a Tunisian official during the uproar, fueling the situation.
There were then suggestions the match would be restarted and reports that organizers had burst into Mali’s post-match press conference and told coach Mohamed Magassouba that his players needed to return to the pitch. to play another three minutes.
The officials gathered on the pitch about 30 minutes after the match ended and were seen in discussions. The Malian players also came out but Tunisia refused to restart the game.
“The players were in their ice baths and then he (the referee) asked us to come out,” said Tunisian coach Kebaier. “In 30 years in this business, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
There was no official word from the Confederation of African Football on any decisions taken during the game and it looked like Mali’s 1-0 win would stand.
Sikazwe was temporarily suspended by CAF in 2018 following match-fixing charges for his performance in charge of an African club game. The Zambian was an official at the World Cup in Russia earlier that year and refereed two games there.
Ibrahima Koné scored from the penalty spot for the Malian goal after a handball from Ellyes Skhiri. Tunisia got a late penalty, also for handball and after a video review by Sikazwe. Tunisian captain Wahbi Khazri saw his powerful penalty saved. Mali held on with 10 men after Toure’s red card, but not as long as they should have, with Sikazwe ending it early.
The violence in Buea has led to more questions about why organizers chose it as a suitable base for African Cup squads given the volatile situation. Buea, the regional capital, has seen many deadly clashes due to an insurrection by English-speaking separatists. More than 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting in western Cameroon since it erupted five years ago.
There was a strong police and military presence outside the Limbe stadium and a military helicopter flew over the Mali-Tunisia match.
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