Mali and Tunisia’s Africa Cup of Nations game ended in chaos after the referee first signalled for full-time on 85 minutes, then ended the match when the clock showed 89 minutes and 47 seconds.
Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier and his technical staff raced on to the field to confront referee Janny Sikazwe after his final whistle consigned them to a 1-0 defeat in Group F.
Twenty minutes later, after Mali manager Mohamed Magassouba’s post-match press conference had started, tournament organisers ordered the game to be played to a conclusion.
However, in more farcical scenes, Tunisia’s players did not return to the field and Mali were declared winners.
Kebaier called the referee’s actions “inexplicable”, adding: “He blew for full time and asked us to go to the dressing room, so the players were in their ice baths and then he asked us to come back out.
“In 30 years in this business, I have never seen anything like it.”
Confusion reigns in Limbe
At the end of an action-packed second half, which saw two stoppages for video assistant referee checks as well as a drinks break and several substitutions, Sikazwe became the centre of attention.
The Zambian – who refereed two group-stage games at the 2018 World Cup in Russia – had signalled for full-time with five minutes remaining, before checking his timings and continuing the game.
Then he ended the match 23 seconds before the 90th minute mark – and without adding on any additional time for stoppages.
Kebaier and his staff angrily confronted Sikazwe and his assistants on the pitch, pointing to their watches and remonstrating about the lack of added time.
The officials were given an escort off the pitch by stadium security as the Malians celebrated in front of their fans, but the controversy did not end there.
More than 20 minutes later, the Malian side ventured back on to the field for the game to restart, but were awarded the victory after the North Africans failed to emerge.
“It is a difficult situation to deal with. The referee also blew with five minutes left in the first half and then he blew after 89 minutes, denying us practically seven or eight minutes of added time,” added Kebaier, whose team had an extra man at the end after Mali’s El Bilal Toure was sent off.
“His decision is inexplicable. I can’t understand how he made his decision and we will see what happens now.”
The Confederation of African Football (Caf), organisers of the tournament, will have questions to answer following a farcical ending and Tunisian protests.
“We were told to go back on the pitch because the game was not finished,” said Magassouba, who was giving his post-match news conference when an official entered the room to announce the game would restart with three minutes left to play.
“Unfortunately the opposition team did not want to come back out and the final whistle was blown.”
Kone fires Eagles of Mali to victory
On the field, Ibrahima Kone’s 48th-minute penalty – awarded after a shot struck the back of the arm of Ellyes Skhiri – proved to be the winner.
But Mali keeper Ibrahim Mounkoro saved a 77th-minute spot-kick from Wahbi Khazri, diving to his right to push away a well-struck effort from the Carthage Eagles captain.
Sikazwe had taken time at the VAR monitor to award the foul after Khazri’s cross flicked the hand of Moussa Djenepo, with more than two minutes elapsing between the incident and the ball being placed on the spot.
Mali substitute Toure was shown a straight red card late on for catching the ankle of Tunisia defender Dylan Bronn, another incident which required a check on the video screen.
The West Africans are considered outside contenders for the Nations Cup after an unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign so far, but the nature of the officiating will provide more of a talking point than their display in Limbe.
The city in south-west Cameroon has seen an increased security presence because of recent conflict stoked by local militants pursuing a separatist agenda.