Mali beat title hopefuls Tunisia 1-0 in a match that was a tale of two penalties on Wednesday as the Africa Cup of Nations moved to Limbe in Cameroon’s southwest, a region on edge due to the conflict led by anglophone separatists.
Ibrahima Kone’s spot-kick shortly after half-time proved the different for Mali in the Group F game, but Tunisia could have earned a draw only for Wahbi Khazri to have his late penalty saved at the other end.
Mali held on despite having substitute El Bilal Toure sent off late on, and the result is a setback for Tunisia, the 2004 continental champions, as another of the tournament’s leading contenders struggled in the heat and humidity of a mid-afternoon kick-off in Cameroon.
On Tuesday it was Algeria, the title-holders, who were held by Sierra Leone in Douala, while 24 hours before that Senegal needed a last-gasp penalty to edge Zimbabwe.
After an average of a goal a game in the first nine matches at the tournament, here was another encounter lacking in goal-mouth excitement, although the Malian supporters who comfortably outnumbered their Tunisian counterparts enjoyed their afternoon.
From the stands in the coastal town of Limbe the eye was regularly drawn to the stunning view down the hill to the Gulf of Guinea rather than the action on the pitch, although just staging matches here at all is an achievement.
Separate unrest in the anglophone region means the road from economic capital Douala to Limbe is lined with patrolling members of the armed forces, and there are checkpoints at the entrance to the town itself.
Mauritania and Gambia, also based here, were due to meet in the other Group F game later.
A strong and athletic Mali side, whose line-up included six players based in Europe’s big five leagues, were the better team on balance, coming closest in the first half from a Massadio Haidara shot that fizzed just past.
They were awarded a spot-kick for handball just after the restart and Kone, of Norwegian club Sarspborg, finished emphatically.
Khazri, the Tunisia captain, had a free-kick tipped over shortly after as they pushed for an equaliser, and their big chance finally came as the game entered the last quarter of an hour.
The Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe initially waved away appeals for handball in the Malian box before changing his mind after a VAR review, but Khazri’s penalty was superbly saved by goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro.
Toure was sent off for a reckless late challenge not long after coming on, but the 10 men held out.