Farce engulfed the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday as the Group F clash between Tunisia and Mali was ended prematurely by the referee – twice.
The Zambian official Janny Sikazwe caused bewilderment, and furious protests from Tunisian players and staff, by appearing to whistle for full-time in the 86th minute.
Tunisia 0-1 Mali: Africa Cup of Nations controversy as referee blows final whistle early – as it happened
He then ordered play to resume, only to trigger further anger by bringing proceedings to a conclusion after 89 minutes and 47 seconds, with Mali leading 1-0. As staff from Tunisia rushed towards the referee and pointed angrily at their watches, Sikazwe and his assistants were escorted off the pitch by stewards.
Frantic negotiations followed in the stadium in Limbé, with efforts made to restart the match from the 89th minute, 40 minutes after the controversy began. As Tunisia refused to return to the pitch, Mali – who had come out again – were declared the winners thanks to the penalty scored by Ibrahima Koné on 48 minutes and Sikazwe ended the game for a third time.
Wahbi Khazri had missed a chance to equalise from the spot when Ibrahim Mounkoro saved his penalty. The fact that there were two penalties in the second half – as well as two incidents reviewed on the pitchside monitor, one red card (rather harshly for Mali’s El Bilal Touré), five substitutions and a drinks break – made the referee’s decision to blow early all the more bizarre.
According to media reports in Tunisia, the country’s football association has filed an official complaint about the refereeing performance along with a request for the match to be replayed.
“The players were taking ice baths for 35 minutes before they were called back out again,” Tunisia’s coach, Mondher Kebaier, said. “I’ve been coaching for a long time never seen anything like it. Even the fourth official was preparing to lift the board [to show how many minutes of injury time] and then the whistle was blown … The referee’s decision is inexplicable; I can’t understand how he reached it. We’ll see what comes of it.”