Ibrahima Koné’s second-half penalty was enough to get Mali off to a winning 1-0 start in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) Group F as they extended their current streak to five victories on the trot, but the performance of referee Janny Sikazwe was the games biggest talking point.
Early on, Mali looked the livelier of the two, and they had the first chance of the game via Boubakar Kouyaté around the quarter-hour mark. However, the defender’s header failed to hit the target. As the match progressed, the Malians moved further into Tunisian territory, but the north African outfit stood firm. Mali did come close to drawing first blood just before HT, though, as Massadio Haïdara’s left-footed drive flew a whisker wide of the left post. While Tunisia looked solid defensively, they failed to muster a single shot on target and will surely have gone into the break the more disappointed of the two sides.
It didn’t take long for Mali to take the lead after the restart. Less than three minutes, in fact, as Tunisia fell victim to a handball in the box and were subsequently punished by Koné’s penalty. Tunisia pushed forward in response as they attempted to end their recent run of three winless AFCON opening games (D2, L1), and the ‘Aigles de Carthage’ were handed a lifeline in the 75th minute as they received a controversial penalty following Moussa Djenepo’s handball. Wahbi Khazri is his country’s talisman, but his spot-kick was brilliantly stopped by goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro.
Visibly shaken by the penalty miss, Mondher Kebaier’s Tunisia were unable to find an equalizer despite a late red card to Mali’s El Bilal Touré. Incredibly, referee Zinkazwe blew the full-time whistle before the end of the 90 minutes and therefore added no injury time despite VAR being required on three separate occasions. It looked as though the two sides would return to the field to play the remaining few minutes, but Tunisia, who were incensed by the official’s original error, refused to continue on an embarrassing day for African football as a whole.
Mali, though, won’t complain as they extended their unbeaten run to seven games in all competitions and registered the first three points in Group F as a result.