Tunisia v Mali referee ends game early sparking controversy over Africa Cup of Nations
Global football is riddled with suspicious activity. But never before has the sport’s highest level seen what it saw in Wednesday’s match between Mali and Tunisia at the Africa Cup of Nations.
A group match between Tunisia and Mali was left with more than five minutes left when a referee tried to end it for no apparent reason.
Then, after protests, chaos, and sequel, he tried to end it early again.
About 20 minutes later, the Confederation of African Football tried to resume play. Officer allegedly burst into Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba’s press conference, trying to get the two teams back on the field. Tunisia, on the other hand, never played and Mali celebrated an apparent 1-0 win.
Referee Janny Sikazwe ended the game prematurely
The madness began just after 85 minutes of a game Mali were leading 1-0 and that should have lasted 90 minutes plus injury time. Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe – previously suspended on corruption charges – blew his whistle, raised his arms in the air and seemingly started to leave the field.
Tunisian players and coaches were at a loss, then angry. Within a minute the error was fixed and the game resumed.
Pretty soon, however, things got weirder. Thirty seconds later, Sikazwe showed Mali’s El Bilal Touré a red card.
Three minutes later, at 89:43 on the clock, Sikazwe was back at full-time.
This time the Tunisian protests were immediate. Coaches flocked to the field to yell at the fourth official, then ran towards Sikazwe. They pointed to their watches. They grabbed his arm to try to get their point across.
Sikazwe eventually had to be escorted off the field by uniformed security guards, who surrounded him and his fellow referees and restrained Tunisia staff.
Overtime is missing
Their argument was not just that the game should have lasted over the 90 minute mark, but that it should have lasted well over 90 minutes. Early in the second half, Sikazwe Mali missed a penalty which Ibrahima Kone converted into the game’s only goal. Later in the half, after a lengthy video review, he missed a penalty to Tunisia, which Mali goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro saved.
Those stoppages, plus a cool-down break, substitutions, the red card and the first mysterious full-time whistle should have resulted in at least three minutes of stoppage time, if not too much more.
“There should be 7-8 minutes of added time,” said Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier later. “His decision is inexplicable.
“I’ve been training for a long time, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kebaier continued. “Even the fourth referee was preparing to lift the board [to show how many minutes of stoppage time there’d be], and then there was a whistle.”
Despite the protests, postgame routines went on as usual. Mounkoro accepted his Man of the Match award. Magassouba began speaking to the media. Then, with beads of sweat beading on his forehead, he was told that he and his players had to return to the pitch.
“The players were more than willing,” he later said at a second press conference. “Unfortunately, our opponent didn’t want to get out.”
Tunisian players never reappeared. Kebaier later noted that many had already started their post-game ice baths. Mali waited for them for a few minutes, then the game was abandoned again.
It’s unclear if the result will be counted as a 1-0 win over Mali as it was when the players initially left the field, or a retirement. Tunisia could also file an official protest and the game could be restarted or replayed at a later date.
It is also unclear if any action will be taken against Sikazwe, the referee. CAF, the African Football Confederation, disciplined him after several controversial decisions in an African Champions League game in 2018. With a hearing pending, Sikazwe was provisionally suspended, but the ban was lifted in 2019.
Previously, Sikazwe was considered a respected referee. He officiated two games at the 2018 World Cup. He had also worked on previous editions of the Africa Cup of Nations – Africa’s premier biennial tournament – and the 2016 Club World Cup final.