Referee mistakes ruin Tunisia vs. Mali at AFCON and threaten to overshadow a fun tournament

The early days of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations have been fraught with incident, from positive coronavirus tests to Burkina Faso alleging "scandal" around CAF's coronavirus protocols, but none of it compared to the refereeing storm that engulfed the final moments of Mali's 1-0 victory over Tunisia in Limbe, Cameroon, on Wednesday.

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Referee Janny Sikazwe had made a series of questionable decisions through the course of the contest, with two questionable penalty decisions before a bewildering final five minutes -- or, to be more accurate, four minutes 42 seconds.

Sikazwe appeared to initially blow for full-time after 85 minutes and 11 seconds, then ignored a VAR recommendation to overturn a red card, and finally called full-time on the contest at 89 minutes 42 seconds. It's one thing to cut injury time a little short or misjudge how much stoppage time should be added, but to end the game before 90 minutes, without even referring to the fourth official for a sense of how much time ought to be added, is yet another headache for CAF to manage. (Considering there were two penalties, a drinks break, several substitutions by both teams and two decisions reviewed by pitch-side monitor, there was no doubting the need for added time.)

Tunisia, trailing 1-0 after Ibrahima Kone's 48th-minute spot-kick -- awarded when Ellyes Skhiri's hand blocked a Boubakar Kiki Kouyate shot -- were apoplectic when the referee ended the game early. They turned their attention to the linesman near their technical area before pursuing Sikazwe, only for security officials to intervene and escort the official away. Such conduct is unacceptable, but their unhappiness was understandable.

CAF interrupted the post-match news conferences to announce that the match would be resumed and the final minutes played, but it was an act of reconciliation Tunisia were unwilling or unable to accept. Mali took to the field with 10 men -- forward El Bilal Toure was sent off shortly before Sikazwe ended the match -- once again to honour the final stages of the contest, but Tunisia did not. Coach Mondher Kebaier later explained that his players "were already in their ice baths" before they departed the stadium.

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In the end, their decision not to return to the field may well count against them when CAF review what happened; Tunisia have already lodged a complaint over Sikazwe's conduct and have requested that the game be replayed.

To their credit, Mali were fully focused on moving forward. "We can only control what's happening on the pitch," Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba told journalists after the match. "Off the field, that's down to the organisers. We were told to return and play and the players were more than willing, but unfortunately our opponents didn't want to come out."

There must be an inquisition into Sikazwe's performance; he is among CAF's most experienced officials, with over a decade and a half of fixtures under his belt. While there have been controversies -- he was acquitted of corruption allegations in January 2019 after a CAF Champions League game between Tunisians Esperance and Primeiro de Agosto of Angola -- he has been considered among the continent's finest officials. At the 2018 World Cup, he presided over Belgium's victory over Panama and Poland's win over Japan -- making him the first-ever Zambian referee at FIFA's biggest competition -- and he also took charge of the 2017 Nations Cup final, as Cameroon defeated Egypt 2-1.

Some might point to testing conditions -- it was 36 degrees Celsius (96 degrees Fahrenheit) and 65% humidity at the Stade de Limbe when the fixture began -- but the 42-year-old teacher has been officiating big matches in similar conditions for over a decade.

Before the early full-time whistle, Wednesday's Group F game involved a litany of poor decisions, with reasonable questions about both handball penalty calls -- one after the contribution of VAR -- and a red card shown to Toure for a clumsy tackle. Each of those incidents should have added up to significant stoppage time, not to mention the nine substitutions, yet Sikazwe -- having already attempted to end the match after 85 minutes -- still curtailed things before the 90 were done.

"He's practically deprived us of seven or eight minutes of additional time," Tunisia manager Kebaier told journalists after the match. "[Sikazwe's] decision is inexplicable. I've been coaching for almost 30 years, and I've never seen a situation like this. The fourth official was preparing to lift the board and then the whistle was blown.

"I can't even begin to understand how he took this decision," he added. "We'll see what decisions will follow this one."

We might never know the true explanation for Sikazwe's actions, but CAF must act quickly and attempt to restore the integrity of a competition that has been badly dented by Wednesday's mess. His actions will now overshadow the quality we've already seen at this tournament, the organisation of the Cameroonian hosts -- OK, the Mauritania anthem debacle wasn't great -- the importance of Mali's victory and the outstanding performance of their goalkeeper, Ibrahim Mounkoro.

Yet you can bet that Sikazwe's awful display will be used as yet another reason for fans to judge the continent's sport, African officiating and the legitimacy of the Nations Cup.

Oh, and Mali won by the way, 1-0.