There were chaotic scenes, confusion, controversies, and goal drought during the Africa Cup of Nations opening games.
On Wednesday as Mali beat Tunisia in a game marred by controversy when the referee blew the final whistle before the 90 minutes had been played.
The incident completely overshadowed Mali’s 1-0 win over one of the title contenders in Limbe, while the Gambia and the Ivory Coast also claimed victories by a single goal as the first round of group matches in the competition were completed.
Zambian official Janny Sikazwe signalled the end of the match with the clock showing 89 minutes and 42 seconds, leaving Tunisia furious as they chased the game against their 10-man opponents.
With confusion reigning, Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba was giving his post-match press conference when an official entered the room under the stand to indicate that the game would restart and that three minutes still remained.
Mali returned to the field but the Tunisians did not re-emerge, and so the referee brought the game to a definitive conclusion when the Malians kicked off again.
– AFCON enters conflict zone –
Mali were still able to celebrate their victory, which was sealed thanks to an Ibrahima Kone penalty just after half-time in the Group F encounter.
Wahbi Khazri had a chance to equalise for Tunisia in the final quarter of an hour but his spot-kick at the other end was saved by Mali goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro.
Mali had substitute El-Bilal Toure sent off late on, before the chaotic scenes unfolded in the stadium in Limbe, which offers spectacular views down the hill to the Gulf of Guinea.
Games are being played in the town despite separatist unrest in the anglophone region.
– Jallow and Gradel stunners –
The refereeing controversy meant kick-off in the day’s second game between Gambia and Mauritania in the same stadium was delayed by 45 minutes, and there was more embarrassment for the organisers as the wrong anthem was played three times for the Mauritanian team.
It was the Gambia who beat their West African neighbours 1-0 to mark their first-ever match at the Cup of Nations in style, with an Ablie Jallow stunner deciding the contest.
In the late game, 2015 champions the Ivory Coast defeated Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in Douala in Group E thanks to a superb early effort by Max-Alain Gradel.
The second round of group matches begins on Thursday as hosts Cameroon take on Ethiopia in Yaounde before Cape Verde play Burkina Faso.
– Wrong anthem –
Africa Cup of Nations officials suffered another embarrassing moment on Wednesday as the wrong anthem was played three times for Mauritania ahead of their opening game against the Gambia in Limbe.
The incident came two hours after the first match in Group F between Mali and Tunisia was brought to an end before the clock hit 90 minutes.
Mauritania players looked on in bemusement, some shaking their heads, as two unsuccessful attempts were made to play the country’s national anthem before kick-off.
The stadium announcer said Mauritania would then sing it themselves. Instead, a third try was quickly cut short after the country’s old anthem was played once more.
– Goal drought –
Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar scored twice in matchday 1 of the Africa Cup of Nations to achieve what no player from the other 23 title contenders managed in their initial outing.
When the African football showpiece expanded from 16 teams to 24 for the last tournament, in Egypt three years ago, 27 goals were scored in 12 matchdays.
But goals have been extremely scarce in Cameroon with just 12 in 12 matches, leading SuperSport TV analyst and former Nigeria star Jay-Jay Okocha to say “we need to see the ball in the net much more often”.