(Reuters) – The Africa Cup of Nations descended into farce on Wednesday as Mali beat Tunisia 1-0 in a match prematurely halted by the referee, who later tried to restart the game only for the Tunisians to refuse to retake the field.
Experienced Zambian official Janny Sikazwe, who took charge of the 2017 Cup of Nations final, initially blew for the final whistle on 85 minutes as he got his timekeeping all wrong in Limbe.
But after then playing on, he repeated the error when he blew for fulltime, again before the clock had ticked over to the 90 minutes.
Tunisia were furious and officials stormed on to the pitch in protest, but the man of the match trophy was handed out and the post-match news conferences in full swing before Confederation of African Football (CAF) officials decided four additional minutes should be played.
Mali came out onto the pitch again 40 minutes after the controversy began, but Tunisia refused to play on and Sikazwe ended the game for a third time.
“The players were taking ice baths for 35 minutes before they were called back out again,” Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier told reporters.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time never seen anything like it.”
The match was also a tale of two penalties as Mali forward Ibrahima Kone converted his attempt, but Tunisia’s Wahbi Khazri could not follow suit as his effort was saved by goalkeeper Ibrahima Mounkoro 13 minutes from time.
Sikazwe sent off Mali striker El Bilal Toure when he was fractionally late making a challenge in what looked a harsh decision.
Debutants Gambia joined Mali at the top of Group F after they won their first game at the finals, edging Mauritania 1-0.
The second match of the double header in Limbe started 45 minutes late because of the earlier farce but the delay did not hinder Gambia, who went ahead after 10 minutes when Ablie Jallow scored from the edge of the penalty area.
Gambia could have won by more goals but were denied by sharp goalkeeping from Babacar Diop.
Also on Wednesday, Ivory Coast beat Equatorial Guinea as expected in Douala, but by only a lone goal.
Captain Max-Alain Gradel scored in the sixth minute, increasing the count of quality long-range strikes into the net at the tournament.
On Thursday, hosts Cameroon can move into the last 16 if they beat Ethiopia in Yaounde, followed by Burkina Faso against the Cape Verde Islands at the Olembe Stadium.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ed Osmond)