Mali-Tunisia ref at AFCON ends match early, sparking suspicion, controversy and chaos

·4 min read

Global soccer is riddled with suspicious activity. But never has the sport's highest level seen what it saw during the Mali-Tunisia match at the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday.

With five-plus minutes remaining in a group-stage match between Tunisia and Mali, a referee tried to end it for no apparent reason.

Then, after protests, chaos and continuation, he tried to end it early again.

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Some 20 minutes later, the Confederation of African Football attempted to restart the match. Officials reportedly barged into Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba's news conference and tried to bring the two teams back out to the field. Tunisia, though, never appeared, and Mali celebrated an apparent 1-0 win.

Referee Janny Sikazwe ends match early

The madness began shortly after the 85th minute of a match that Mali led 1-0, and that should have lasted 90 minutes plus stoppage time. Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe — who'd previously been suspended on suspicion of corruption — blew his whistle, raised his arms into the air and seemingly began to walk off the field.

Tunisian players and coaches were initially perplexed, then furious. Within a minute, the error was corrected, and the match resumed.

Pretty soon, though, it got stranger. Thirty seconds later, Sikazwe issued a red card to Mali's El Bilal Touré.

Three minutes after that, with 89:43 on the clock, Sikazwe whistled for full time again.

This time, the Tunisian protests were immediate. Coaches spilled out onto the field, to scream at the fourth official, then to run toward Sikazwe. They pointed at their watches. They grabbed him by the arm to try to make their point.

Sikazwe eventually had to be escorted off the field by uniformed security guards, who surrounded him and his fellow referees and held back members of Tunisia's staff.

Missing stoppage time

Mali-Tunisia at AFCON was tainted by suspect refereeing from Janny Sikazwe. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Mali-Tunisia at AFCON was tainted by suspect refereeing from Janny Sikazwe. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Their argument was not just that the match should have lasted through the 90-minute mark, but that it should have lasted well beyond 90 minutes. Early in the second half, Sikazwe awarded a penalty to Mali, which Ibrahima Kone converted for the only goal of the game. Later in the half, after a lengthy video review, he awarded a penalty to Tunisia, which Mali goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro saved.

Those stoppages, plus a cooling break, substitutions, the red card and the first mystifying full-time whistle, should have led to at least three minutes of added time, if not much more.

"There was supposed to be 7-8 minutes of additional time," Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier later said. "His decision is inexplicable.

"I’ve been coaching for a long time, 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 the whistle was blown."

Despite the protests, postgame routines went on as usual. Mounkoro accepted his man of the match award. Magassouba began speaking to the media. That's when, with beads of sweat running down his forehead, he was told that he and his players had to return to the pitch.

"The players were more than willing," he said at a second news conference later. "Unfortunately, our opponents didn't want to come out."

Tunisian players never reappeared. Kebaier later noted that many had already begun their post-match ice baths. Mali waited for them for several minutes, then the game was once again called off.

It's unclear if the result will be ruled a 1-0 Mali win, as it was when players initially left the field, or a forfeit. Tunisia could also file an official protest, and the game could be restarted or replayed at a later date.

It's also unclear whether any action will be taken against Sikazwe, the ref. CAF, the African soccer governing body, disciplined him after multiple controversial decisions in an African Champions League match in 2018. With a hearing pending, Sikazwe was provisionally suspended, but the ban was lifted in 2019.

Previously, Sikazwe was regarded as a respected ref. He officiated two games at the 2018 World Cup. He'd also worked previous editions of the Africa Cup of Nations — Africa's premier, biennial tournament — and the Club World Cup final in 2016.