Time is a social construct created by humanity to give order to the chaos of everyday life, and it is a concept that is generally accepted without much fuss. Don’t tell that to African Cup of Nations referee Janny Sikazwe, though, because he will simply scoff at the idea of minutes and seconds, all while blowing his whistle in apparent glee.
During the last 10 minutes of Mali and Tunisia’s Group F showdown in the first round of AFCON, Sikazwe had himself quite an adventure. In a match that already had a VAR-given penalty saved in the 77th minute, the Zambian referee took it upon himself to instill some temporal flux into the proceedings. In the 86th minute, Sikazwe blew the whistle for the end of the match, handing Mali a 1-0 victory that would put it in pole position to qualify to the knockout stages.
The only problem is that soccer matches typically last 90 minutes.
To Sikazwe’s credit, he seemed to immediately realize his mistake and, after a brief explanation to both teams, play was restarted. That’s funny on its own, but nothing worthy of mockery. Accidental whistles, even ones as decisive as a final whistle four-plus minutes ahead of schedule, happen in sports. Unfortunately for Sikazwe and the teams involved, but fortunately for everyone else, he didn’t stop there.
Before dipping back into the waters of time, our intrepid referee took a more traditional route towards controversy, sending off Mali’s El Bilal Touré in the 87th minute. As happens with all red cards under VAR nowadays, the replay crew reviewed the incident and ruled that it was not, in fact, a red card. Do you think that would stop our man from what he was there to do? Of course not. Sikazwe overrode VAR—death to the machines!—and still sent poor Touré off in the 87th minute, giving Tunisia a last-second gasp of hope.
After all, playing up a man with three minutes plus stoppage time is just the advantage a trailing team needs. Rather, it would have been, had Sikazwe not blown for full-time at 89:46:
Again, soccer matches last 90 minutes, and though it is not unheard of for a referee to blow the whistle at exactly 90:00, it is quite special to see one do it before even that point. That’s also ignoring the fact that stoppage time should definitely have come into play, what with two high-value VAR reviews in the final 15 minutes of regular time. To my somewhat trained eye, the referee should have awarded around four minutes of additional time.
Though the Tunisian players and coaches argued with Sikazwe on the field, both teams eventually retreated to the locker rooms and to press conferences, as is tradition following matches. Our story doesn’t end there! Clearly, there was something wrong with ending a tournament match in such a messy way, so the Confederation of African Football immediately began discussing a restart of the match, this time with a new referee. After about half an hour, it was decided that the match would be restarted, with the fourth official taking Sikazwe’s place.
Mali players came back out onto the field, probably confused and hesitant about whatever was happening here:
They needn’t worry, though, as Tunisia refused to come back out, despite trailing. I don’t really blame the team for taking a stand, though, as this is all just a bit ridiculous. Tunisian manager Mondher Kebaier was understandably pissed in his post-match conference about all the confusion:
In the end, Mali was awarded a 1-0 win that will likely—hopefully!—end up as the shortest match in the entire tournament. Given how this tournament has already bucked tradition by featuring commercials during gameplay and now some time magic manipulation, I for one can’t wait to see whatever fresh madness comes out of Cameroon this month.