Mali 1-0 Tunisia isn’t a scoreline that would set the pulses racing at first glance, but this game will go down in infamy – for all the wrong reasons. Spectators love drama, granted, but not the kind where suspicions, reputations and logic swirl into a muddied cesspool of confusion.
Accusations had been lazily thrown around that the Africa Cup of Nations had thus far failed to generate enough genuine excitement with some seriously low-scoring games after only the opening match in which hosts Cameroon beat Burkina Faso 2-1 saw more than a single goal. The shockingly poor coverage in most non-African countries certainly hadn’t helped, so in one sense a blockbuster moment was needed to kick-start the tournament.
Some major names were on show as Tunisia took on Mali; Manchester United’s spectacular starlet Hannibal Mejbri, fresh from a sterling Arab Cup campaign in which the Carthage Eagles had soared all the way to the final. FC Koln’s Ellyes Shkiri anchored the midfield behind Wahbi Khazri. Mali boasted Bundesliga players Diadie Sammasekou and Amadou Haidara and Southampton’s electric young winger Moussa Djenepo. The star (or better villain), however, was undoubtedly referee Janny Sikazwe.
The Zambian official has a wealth of experience, having officiated at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as well as the 2017 AFCON Final between Cameroon and Egypt. Although that track record justified his appointment for a clash of Group F’s heavyweights, there was another slice of his history that would become worryingly relevant. Months after officiating at FIFA’s showpiece event in Russia, Sikazwe had been provisionally suspended by Africa’s governing body CAF for extremely suspicious control of the Champions League semi-final second leg between Tunisian powerhouse Esperance and Angola’s Primeiro de Agosto.
A relatively uneventful first half came and went before the fireworks truly began. Shkiri was caught out by VAR for handling the ball in the penalty area, and Mali were duly awarded a spot kick. While the decision was perhaps a little unfair – he’d jumped past a challenge with his arms raised as you naturally do when avoiding contact, and the ball bounced up and struck his forearm without him looking at it – it was technically the right call. Ibrahima Kone converted to put his country in front after they had largely controlled play.
Ex-Sunderland midfielder Wahbi Khazri struck a free kick that was creeping under the bar until Ibrahim Mounkoro tipped it over. Dylan Bronn let rip from distance to force the Mali keeper down to his left at full stretch.
With little over quarter of an hour left, Khazri skipped inside his marker cleverly as he burst into the penalty area and drilled an effort straight at Southampton’s Moussa Djenepo from a few yards. Clearly the winger had no chance in withdrawing his arm from a fairly standard position, but that of course didn’t stop the furious Tunisian protests; Sikazwe was unmoved. Eventually VAR was called upon, and three minutes later he returned to the pitch and pointed to the spot, only for Mounkoro to pull off a spectacular save to keep his side in front and once again deny Khazri. As the penalty was struck, at least four players just a yard or two in front of the referee were clearly encroaching so much that his view of the penalty taker was completely obscured, but that rule-break was ignored.
But then the controversies really started to really kick in. Just as 85 minutes rolled over on the match timer, inexplicably Sikazwe blew for full time leaving the players and officials dumbfounded. In the Limbe Omnisport Stadium, there were no game clocks visible, even on the giant screen at one end. Eventually he relented and restarted the match, but was far from done with concocting more drama. Two minutes after the restart Bronn beat El Bilal Toure – who had only come off the bench five minutes (of playing time) earlier – to the ball around the centre circle, with the Mali striker brushing his foot as it cleared the danger.
Without hesitation Sikazwe drew out a red card. The VAR attempted to advise him it wasn’t a sending off, but the Zambian stood firm and refused to withdraw the punishment.
With all the stoppages, including four VAR consultations, nine substitutions, and a cooling drinks break in the second half, there should have been at least six minutes of added time, maybe seven; added time never even arrived though. Sikazwe blew his whistle prematurely again with 89:40 on the clock, and was predictably mobbed by the entire Tunisian bench and team.
The teams did leave the pitch after some time of remonstration and both managers began their post-match media duties. Ibrahim Mounkoro was awarded the man of the match award for his heroic shot stopping. Mali’s Mohamed Magassouba was halfway through praising the mental strength of his players at the press conference when suddenly he was interrupted by voices from the back of the room.
CAF officials broke up the session to explain the match wasn’t necessarily over yet, 20 minutes after the game had been ended by the official.
Both teams initially rejected the attempt to replay the final minutes as CAF debated how to resolve the clearly farcical chain of events. Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi was told by one official that no final decision had been made at this point, leaving confusion as to whether that really was it, or whether the remaining minutes would in fact be replayed.
After a few minutes the officials and Mali’s players re-emerged from the tunnel as a smattering of fans poured back into the stands: game on. Except there was a problem – Tunisia had refused to come back out. By this point it was impossible to know what was happening for certain, but the whistle was blown for a third and ultimately final time to draw the curtains on the darkly comic farce.
When Magassouba addressed the press for the second time, he was so stressed he held a cloth over his head to wipe away the sweat.
“I told the players that we can only control what is on the pitch. 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.”Mali manager Mohamed Magassouba after the attempted restart
Why had Tunisia not returned? On a superficial level one might have thought they’d take any chance to scrape back a point at least. The team officials, however, were adamant that the entire match should be replayed, reportedly insisting “we will defend our rights to the end”. Either way, manager Mondher Kebaier was fuming at the handling of the affair.
“Very tough to manage non-sporting affairs. At the 85th minute he blows final whistle. Again at 89th minute. There was supposed to be 7-8 minutes of additional time. His decision is inexplicable. The players were taking ice baths for 35 minutes before they were called back out again. I’ve been coaching for a long time, never seen anything like it. Even the fourth referee was preparing to lift the board and then the whistle was blown.”Tunisia manager Mondher Kebaier explaining why his players were not prepared to continue
After Sikazwe’s raft of bizarre and highly suspicious decision-making his past was always likely to catch up with him, and sadly the all-too-familiar laughter laced with stereotyping about African officiating swelled around the world. Typical AFCON, laughed the English fans who’d watched their own Graham Poll award three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić in South Africa at the 2006 World Cup. Sniggers piled in from Spaniards who had watched Ricardo De Burgos cut Sevilla vs Granada short last spring. Only in Africa, right?
It was hard to tell if the overwhelming consensus was settling on corruption or just sheer incompetence, until a third option emerged. The game had kicked off at 1pm local time with temperatures reaching 31°C, and reports emerged that Sikazwe had suffered from heat stroke as the game was closing out. “It would explain a lot of his decisions in the final 15 minutes of the game,” said DZ Foot journalist Walid Ziani.
Whichever way one looks at the entire debacle, it wasn’t a good look for the Africa Cup of Nations as Jammy Sikazwe’s fate remains in limbo after his Limbe notoriety. Hopefully the drama will translate to the pitch as we enter the second round of group games.