Referees are at the epicentre of a match; they can make or break the tempo of the game with just one blow. In Cameroon referees have taken centre stage, in both the literal and figurative sense, notes Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
The five minutes of madness in the group stage match between Mali and Tunisia unwittingly set the tone for below par match officiating at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Janny Sikwaze’s moment of infamy became the springboard for many other shambolic refereeing performances that have emerged as willing bridesmaid accompanying insipid football displays. In fact, the officiating has been the contender for man-of-the-tournament, usurping the actual football action. Sikwaze got the ball rolling with a hat trick of mistakes in a frenzied five minutes, which left the Zambia official’s reputation hanging threadbare. It remains to be seen how he will recover from the undiluted moment of chaos, where he first, prematurely ended the game in the 85th minute and then after the restart, he again blew the whistle in the 89th.
In between, Sikwaze still had sufficient time to concoct another talking point when he failed to overturn a wrongly flashed red card. It was not the spotlight the tournament needed but the organisers would have hoped they had seen the tail end of the controversy. But the incident triggered further flashpoints as what has followed has been narrative-sustaining poor officiating, which will likely feed the continent’s detractors cannon fodder on a silver platter. The match officiating madness has rumbled on, albeit at a reduced speed than pacesetter, Sikwaze. Fortunately, local referee Joshua Bondo has emerged with his reputation intact thus far after two commanding performances in the middle of the park.
The CAF competition is in desperate need of the kiss of life both on and off the pitch, but the match officiating has thrown spanners in the works. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in a full tour for the first time at the AFCON appears to exert undue pressure on the referees. VAR is supposed to be a tool to aid the referee make an informed choice, but in Cameroon, it has emerged as the alpha and omega of decisions. It has turned referees into spineless individuals, particularly in the game between Ghana and Comoros where the Ghanian captain, Ayew Pele was given his marching orders for a 50-50 challenge with the Comoros goalkeeper.
The referee had initially ignored the incident, but was advised to check the monitor and then overturned his decision to give Pele his marching orders. It was the same when Senegal’s Sadio Mane collided with the Cape Verde goalkeeper Josimar Dias, known as Vozinha, where both players were going for the ball. Vozinha was sent for an early shower in the incident which left Mane with a concussion. It has been raining cards, particularly red, with analysts arguing the referees have been harsh in sending off players. In the first four games of the round of 16, five red cards were given out, translating to more than a dismissal per game.
The minnows have been on the receiving end of what is seen as unfair sending-offs. The challenge of Cape Verde and Comoros were effectively over before halftime as they had players sent off against continental heavyweights, Senegal and Cameroon respectively. “Some of these red card decisions in AFCON are shocking.
Is football getting soft?” tweeted former Ghana and Chelsea holding midfielder, Michael Essien. This year’s tournament, heading into the quarter-finals, has produced 13 red cards, with more expected at this rate. The tally equals to that managed in four tournaments combined. Some of the red cards have come as early as the seventh minute for offences warranting a yellow. In the full glare of the television cameras from across the world, some of the referees could have blown up their chances for an opportunity at a stage like the World Cup.