Tunisia goalkeeper Bechir Ben Saïd hacked the ball clear, at which the Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe gave a blast on his whistle and, giving another shorter blast and then a final long one, raised his arms and pointed to the tunnel.
Except that the game, in which Mali led Tunisia 1–0, was still in the 85th minute. And thus began a stretch that has brought unwanted attention to chaos and controversy at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Tunisia’s bench reacted furiously and Sikazwe seemingly got the message that he had blundered. There has been no official explanation, but it seems probable that he had forgotten to stop his watch during the second-half water break, which was mandatory with temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius (in the 90s Fahrenheit).
So the game started again. Two minutes later, Mali’s El Bilal Touré caught Dylan Bronn with a slightly late tackle. It was a foul, but what contact there was appeared minimal. Sikazwe flashed a red card. VAR asked him to take a look at the monitor and, despite there being no malice in the challenge, no excessive force and no danger to Bronn, Sikazwe upheld his initial decision.
The Zambian official had already had a major impact on the outcome of the game, awarding two extremely harsh penalties for handballs. In both instances, the ball was struck hard from no great distance into players who had their arms in natural positions. There was at least consistency with the penalty awarded against Sudan on Tuesday, but the hope then was that that was an aberration, not the standard for the tournament. With every side at the AFCON struggling for creativity, there is a serious danger that the group stage could be decided by random bounces onto arms. This is the strict liability that it seemed football had moved away from, as though the question being asked is not, “Has anybody cheated?” but instead, “Can we give a penalty for that?”
Mali had scored their penalty through Ibrahima Koné, while Wahbi Khazri had seen his effort spectacularly saved by Ibrahim Mounkoro. So it seemed Mali had three minutes plus at least five—and a possible seven or eight—minutes of injury time to hold out. But with the clock showing 89:47, Sikazwe blew the full-time whistle again. And again, Tunisia reacted with fury, but with security personnel protecting the referee, it seemed that this time the game was over.
But 20 minutes later, as Mali manager Mohamed Magassouba was giving his post-match press conference, officials from the Confederation of African Football interrupted him, to say that a further three minutes needed to be played (this still seemed at least two and probably more minutes short). Magassouba, understandably, looked appalled, but he sent his side out.
"I told the players that we can only control what is on the pitch,” he said. “Off the pitch, that's up to the administrators. When we were told to go back out and play the players were more than willing. Unfortunately, our opponents didn't want to come out."
Sikazwe was not there, replaced by his fourth official. And neither was Tunisia. "The players were taking ice baths for 35 minutes before they were called back out again,” said Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier. “I’ve been coaching for a long time never seen anything like it.”
Mali’s players applauded their fans and left the pitch, but it’s far from clear whether the 1–0 scoreline will stand. Tunisia, seemingly, believes the game should be replayed in its entirety, although that would both seem unfair on Mali, which has done nothing wrong, and impossible within the limited timeframe of a tournament. There remains a possibility that the match could be decided a walkover and awarded 3–0 to Mali, although the likeliest outcome is surely that the 1–0 scoreline remains. With Gambia and Mauritania making up the rest of the group, both teams should still go through.
But perhaps more significant is the image this creates of the Cup of Nations. Numerous European clubs were very obviously reluctant to release players for the tournament, and chaos like this can only increase the impression many seemingly have that the Cup of Nations is not a serious a tournament. What makes it worse is that Sikazwe is not some inexperienced official overawed by the experience; he is one of the most highly rated referees in Africa, having taken charge of the 2017 Cup of Nations final.
Add in the infrastructure failure, the confusion over COVID-19 testing and CAF’s own YouTube channel being taken down for copyright violations after streaming games live—as it had promised it would pre-tournament—and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, once again, African football is being let down by those who are supposed to be running it.
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