By Boris Esono Nwenfor
The Eagles of Mali had to overcome the challenge both on and off the field as they began the challenge of winning the Africa Cup of Nations AFCON, for the second time in their history, in a crucial encounter at the Limbe Omnisports Stadium this January 12.
Before the encounter, the Malians were reported to be the recipient of the separatist crisis that has been unfolding in the South West and North West Regions for the last five years. Media reports this Wednesday morning indicated that the Malians had to halt their morning training at the Buea Omnisport Stadium ahead of the Tunisia clash at the Limbe Omnisport Stadium.
Though this is faulty (team rarely of if do not hold training on the day of their encounter), what is certain is that gunshots were heard in Buea as the team made their way to the seaside resort town of Limbe where they were scheduled to play their encounter.
When the dust had settled, images circulated on social media showed two persons dead and the extent of those injured cannot be ascertained. Separatist fighters had earlier warned that they did not want the AFCON to be held in the South West and had petitioned both CAF and FIFA but their calls were ignored.
On the field, it was a low key first half between Mali and Tunisia as both sides tried to get an upper hand in the encounter. Mali was the dominant team with more shots (8) but all the efforts from both teams produced none on target. This was very much expected looking at the previous meetings between the Carthage Eagles and the Eagles. The last AFCON meeting coming back in 2019 finished one all.
Mali Coach Mohamed Magassouba who has made strong claims about his team’s participation and hope the trophy follows them back to Mali seemed to have injected in his players a sense of urgency knowing what is at stake as a few minutes into the second half, his team took the lead. Ibrahima Kone with the penalty kick at the 48th minute which he made no mistake of.
Ibrahima Kone has been outstanding for his Malian side scoring in each of the five previous encounters that he has played in. Mali continued to pressure the Tunisians and almost extended their lead but that would not be the case with strong defence from Tunisia.
The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia had the majority of the ball possession but that did not transcend into opportunities on goal. The team had some 7 shots and just two were on target. Tunisia will, however, find a lifeline through as Moussa Djenepo conceded a handball inside the box. Khazri will, however, flopped his chance as goalkeeper Mounkoro made an excellent save.
The game was also not without controversies on the pitch with referee Sikazwe of Zambia at the centre of it all. The referee who blew the 2017 AFCON final between Cameroon and Egypt called time on the game five minutes to full time. He had earlier given a red card to one of the players of Mali and after VAR called for his attention, he maintained his earlier decision.
As if bad luck was on him, referee Sikazwe again blew the whistle for the second time to end the match without the game reaching 90mins, 89mine 56secs to be precise. No additional time was even given after several holdups were recognized in the game such as water breaks, consulting of VAF, penalty decisions and others.
It was an ugly scene at the end of the game with Tunisia coach very displeased with the officiating of the Zambian. After in camera discussions, the match was scheduled to be played for five minutes (to make up for the referee’s error) but the Tunisian side after having been to their dressing room refused to come out and the game was even to Mali a per the score of 1-0.
The win for Mali takes the side top of Group F at the time of writing this report with three points, while Tunisia counts 0 points heading into the second encounter. Mali will next face The Gambia on Sunday, January 16 while Tunisia will look for redemption against Mauritania.