An African Football Tragedy

Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final hoax between Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia brought back memories of an AFCON qualifier in 1999 between South Africa and Gabon in Libreville.  The 2015 sham saw the Tunisians comfortably in charge.  After Ahmed Akaichi had handed the Eagles of Carthage the lead, it appeared as if Georges Leekens’ men were set to see out the remaining 20 minutes and claim a 1-0 win to take them to a semi-final against Congo in Malabo.

Well that was not to be.  After a dubious penalty was awarded by Rajindraparsad Seechurn of Mauritius in favour of the hosts in second half stoppage time, Javier Balboa converted the spot kick to send the fixture into extra time.  In the first half of the additional 30 minutes a free kick was awarded to Nzalang Nacional and Balboa stepped up to slot in a dead ball that was worthy of any tournament.  Congratulations to the 29-year old and to the home side for not giving up and giving it their all.

But were they really rewarded for their efforts?  Shameful refereeing no doubt assisted Esteban Becker’s men and infuriated the North Africans, who struggled to contain their temper.  These factors coupled with a passionately partisan Bata crowd saw Becker’s boys pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the event.

Roll back some 16 years to Stade Omar Bongo.  Bafana Bafana, leading the way in AFCON 2000 qualifying, were victims in Gabon in similar fashion.  Shaun Bartlett scored one of two perfectly legitimate goals in regulation time but on that day it was dubiously disallowed.  Goalless after 90 minutes, there would be a 93rd minute penalty by Dieudonne Londo to hand the Panthers victory.

For what it is worth the South Africans won the return fixture 4-1 and drew the Gabonese in their pool in Ghana where they won 3-1.  At the time Gabon were 27 years unbeaten at home after the referee in their last reverse in 1972 failed to leave the ground alive.

This kind of intimidation has no place in the beautiful game, nor do the shenanigans seen on Saturday.  No doubt the point of home ground advantage is that referees are often influenced by the noise of the crowd and therefore 50-50 decisions tend to go the way of the hosts.  That is fine and I have no problem with that at all, but when it boils down to blatant bias, possibly even cheating, then something has to be done.