The 2022 Africa Cup of Nations group match between Tunisia and Mali ended in chaos after the referee twice opted to whistle the conclusion of the match before the 90 minutes of regulation were up.
Wednesday’s match at Omnisport Stadium in Limbe, Cameroon was a tense affair, and it ended in explosive fashion as Mali emerged from the confusion as 1-0 winners. The Group E opener also featured two penalties and a red card.
An African confederation official has since spoken about what might have led to the issue, but the fact remains that the referee opted to blow the full-time whistle early on two separate occasions before attempting to bring the teams back out for additional stoppage time, which one team refused outright.
What happened at the end of Tunisia vs. Mali?
While the first half of Tunisia vs. Mali, like many AFCON 2022 matches before it, was uneventful and ended 0-0, the second half of action was far more entertaining.
Early in the half, Mali earned a penalty after VAR review, and 22-year-old Sarpsborg striker Ibrahima Kone deposited the spot-kick to put the Eagles in front.
As the half wore on, the final 20 minutes exploded. Tunisia was awarded a penalty for a handball in the area, and Wahbi Khazri stepped up to take it. Mali goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro was up to the challenge, producing a stunning diving save to keep the penalty out.
All this action is notable as we get to the events of the final five minutes of play.
In the 86th minute, the referee inexplicably blew his full-time whistle, and the Tunisia coaching staff was incensed, all pointing to their watches. The referee realized his mistake, and the match continued.
Moments later, the referee controversially produced a straight red card for Mali’s El Bilal Toure for what appeared to be an innocuous challenge. The referee went to the pitchside monitor for a video review of the incident, and replays did show Toure step studs-up over the ball and into the shin of a Tunisia player. After review, the referee stayed with his initial decision and Tunisia had a few more minutes with a man-up advantage to search for an equalizer.
But then with 89:40 showing on the clock, still seconds from full-time and not yet into stoppage time, the referee again blew his full-time whistle to end the match.
After two penalties, two VAR reviews, and a red card shown, a healthy chunk of stoppage time would not only be expected, but it would be necessary. Yet the official brought the match to a conclusion not only without any additional time, but 20 seconds prior to the full 90 minutes of regulation. The Tunisia coaching staff exploded in anger and protested for minutes, but it was to no avail. The match was over.
Last 5 min of Tunisia v Mali in #AFCON2021 :
– Ref blows the whistle for full time on 85 min.
– Restarts the play.
– Sends off a Mali player in 87th min.
– VAR tells the ref it’s not a red.
– Ref rejects the VAR decision.
– Ref blows again for full time on 89.40min pic.twitter.com/ilSnxlawuk
— Football Talk (@Football_TaIk) January 12, 2022
Fallout from the ending of Tunisia vs. Mali
The controversy did not end there.
Some time after the final whistle blew and the teams had exited the playing area, the officiating crew realized its mistake. The referees attempted to bring the players of both teams back out onto the field.
While the Mali players returned to the pitch willing to continue, Tunisia refused, as their players had already returned to the locker room and emotions were running high.
Tunisia 🇹🇳 have refused to return to the pitch to play the final five minutes of the game so Mali 🇲🇱 have been declared 1-0 winners. #AFCON2021
— Usher Komugisha (@UsherKomugisha) January 12, 2022
“He deprived us of concentration,” said Tunisia head coach Mondher Kebaier after Tunisia’s 1-0 defeat, as quoted by the AFCON official website via CNN. “We did not want to resume because the players had already taken their baths, deconcentrated and demoralized in the face of this gruesome situation.”
“The players were taking ice baths for 35 minutes before they were called back out again,” Kebaier continued. “I’ve been coaching for a long time and never seen anything like it. Even the fourth official was preparing to lift the board [to show the stoppage time] and then the whistle was blown.”
As a result of the controversy, the following match between Mauritania and Gambia was postponed by 45 minutes.
In addition, Tunisia lodged an official complaint with the African confederation (CAF):
#TeamTunisia have filed a protest to CAF concerning referee Janny Sikazwe. CAF are expected to reply within the next 24 hours.
Grab your popcorn 🍿
— Owuraku Ampofo (@_owurakuampofo) January 12, 2022
It’s unlikely that Tunisia’s complaint will garner more than a mea culpa from CAF after the officials did make an attempt to correct the mistake. From a sporting perspective, the only possible options would be to either resume the final five minutes at a later date or replay the match in its entirety, and neither would seem like a viable option.
What has the CAF said about Tunisia-Mali?
While many were speculating that the referee had an issue with his timekeeping device or lost track of the time after a hydration break, the African federation made a shocking reveal on Thursday after an investigation into the incident. The update sheds some light on what may have occurred.
Head of officiating for CAF, Essam Abdel-Fatah, stated that the official, Janny Sikazwe, was suffering from heat stroke and dehydration during the closing stages of the match, causing the error to occur. Abdel-Fatah confirmed that Sikazwe was hospitalized after the match for his condition, receiving further treatment.
“The referee suffered from heat stroke and very severe dehydration, which led to him losing focus and was taken to the hospital,” Abdel-Fatah told MBC Egypt’s Al-Laib, and quoted by The Independent. “It caused him to lose time in the 80th minute, and he ended the match in the 85th minute. He returned after directions from the assistant staff and then returned to finish the match in the 89th minute.
“When the crisis occurred and the objections and control were lost in the match, the fourth referee was the one who was going to complete the match [instead of Sikazwe], but one of the two teams refused.”
Temperatures at the stadium in Limbe, Cameroon during the match on Wednesday reached 34 degrees Celsius, or 93 degrees Farenheit.
The CAF has not yet released its decision on Tunisia’s appeal.
Have you EVER seen anything like it!
Referee ends match early…
Press conferences interrupted as AFCON officials say match must resume!
Referee changed for final three minutes!
Tunisia fail to return to the pitch!
Unbelievable, Jeff. pic.twitter.com/MfSfT0YJH1
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) January 12, 2022
Who was the referee in Tunisia vs. Mali?
Referee Janny Sikazwe is not new to controversy.
The Zambian international has been a FIFA-listed official since 2007, with the 2016 Club World Cup final, the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final, and two 2018 World Cup matches on his resume. However, not all those events went off without a hitch.
In the 2016 Club World Cup final between Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers, Sikazwe made headlines as it appeared the official was preparing to show Sergio Ramos a yellow card before realizing he had already booked Ramos previously in the match, and subsequently refrained from giving Ramos a second booking.
Sikazwe after the match explained that the confusion came from miscommunication with his assistant referee who spotted the foul, with Sikazwe believing to have heard his assistant indicate a card should be shown, before it was clarified that his assistant instead had said “no card” over the earpiece.
Just two years later, Sikazwe was again under fire for an incident in a CAF Champions League match between Esperance de Tunis and Primeiro de Agosto. After Sikazwe awarded Esperance a controversial penalty early in the match and ruled out a Primeiro goal later, a corruption complaint was lodged and Sikazwe was provisionally suspended, although he was later cleared for lack of evidence.