Equatorial Guinea's feel-good story soured by dubious penalty
BATA, Equatorial Guinea -- At least the security forces in Estadio de Bata had ample warning.
It had been clear for over half an hour that there was no chance of the Tunisians going quietly, and when Rajindraparsad Seechurn blew the final whistle it was time to move fast. First it was Seechurn himself who took off, sprinting towards the tunnel as a line of players in white kits pursued. They were not going to stop and, for a couple of heart-in-mouth moments, it seemed as if the force of their ire might be too much. Fortunately others had already set off and, within seconds, Seechurn was flanked by six police officers and stewards, who bundled him down the tunnel before the baying mob -- for that is what it was -- could catch up.
The commotion continued inside, but on the pitch a scene was unfolding that would have appeared a work of fiction minutes previously. Equatorial Guinea were in no hurry to leave: they lapped the arena, saluted all corners of yet another febrile home crowd and then, asked by riot police to wait in front of the tunnel entrance while things calmed down, took in the applause some more. This had been perhaps the biggest night in a small country's sporting history and moments like this, a first place in the African Nations Cup semifinals, are to be luxuriated in. But nobody could ignore the context and the strange, strange taste that it had left. This was no ordinary good news story.
It had looked certain to be one of frustration. Tunisia's gameplan had worked a treat for most of this quarterfinal, even if it had caused the most tolerant of onlookers to curse under their breath. George Leekens' side had quieted a fast-starting Equatorial Guinea team from the beginning, using most tricks in the book to do so. Rotational fouling was employed liberally -- they would make more than 40 during the course of the game -- while the smallest contact was exaggerated and set-pieces were deliberated over as if lives were at stake.
When it came, their goal was little surprise -- it was finished smartly by Ahmed Akaichi and was by no means their first opportunity. There were just 20 minutes to play and, when Emilio Nsue squandered the hosts' first real opening of the game with seven minutes to play, it seemed as if the situation was to be managed adeptly.
The game's latter stages had frayed the patience of those watching and Seechurn, the Mauritian referee, had not been impressed either. Tunisians were constantly admonished for running down the clock; the niggles became even more cynical, more tiresome, but more likely to edge the north Africans into the last four.
With it they had killed most of the dramatic tension and there seemed little hope of a twist in the second minute of injury time when Ivan Bolado, the Equatorial Guinea substitute, chased a ball along the left hand side of the penalty area. He was side by side with defender Hamza Mathlouthi and no obvious challenge was made. But Bolado went down, perhaps having trodden on his opponent's foot, and Seechurn pointed to the penalty spot without delay. The stadium erupted. In the press box, faces looked at one another in astonishment; there had been nothing in the tussle and the game itself had long since been locked down, too.
Javier Balboa scored and nothing would be the same afterwards -- and perhaps it will not be the same for the rest of this competition. The decision to award the penalty was patently incorrect and, although this Tunisia side was hard to sympathise with, the reality was that Equatorial Guinea had got out of jail.
The winning goal, a wonderful free kick from Balboa (he had won it himself after a tumble that also caused anger among Tunisia's players) that evaded goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi, was exceptional but little surprise. Tunisian heads had gone and Equatorial Guinea, who started extra time with only two recognised defenders on the pitch, must have felt a sense of provenance as they watched their opponents' coaches and substitutes swarm onto the pitch in fruitless search of justice when the 90 minutes were up.
None of which excused the behaviour of Tunisia's players at the final whistle, even if they had been frustrated by the hosts' own time-wasting towards the end of extra-time -- goalkeeper Felipe Ovono spending two minutes on the ground after making a seemingly routine save -- and apparent bad sportsmanship. The storm had been brewing.
"Everyone was very upset," the Tunisia substitute Bilel Mohsni told ESPN FC after the game. "Equatorial Guinea didn't have the fair play to win the game, be quiet and not take the p--- out of us. This is what they did and all of the players were very upset. When they scored goals they came up to us, they were swearing at us, they were making some bad movements, it's not fair.
"I think the referee was the best player on the pitch today. All of the players are vert upset and I think you can understand. We came here to represent our country and we didn't lose because we were bad -- we lost because the referee was better than us. If it had been fair, we would have beaten Equatorial Guinea."
Leekens cut a distraught figure in the post-match news conference, at times seeming close to tears.
"In all my 45 years in football, 15 as a player and 30 as a coach, I've never seen anything like it, today's result was forced," said the Belgian. "The referee has made a huge error, It's hard to accept certain things in life, like the loss of a child, the loss of family. We played a good game, we've worked like mad men, we had a difficult first two weeks and we didn't deserve that."
They had done little to win neutrals' favour but he had a point. It was a similar refrain to that of the Gabon coach Jorge Costa, who had complained about the penalty won and converted by Balboa in their decisive group stage meeting last weekend. Equatorial Guinea have rightly won hearts with their blend of athletic, technical, forward-thinking football and the thought of a team 118th in the FIFA world rankings defeating one placed 22nd is usually enough to make the mouth water. The country's citizens have not had an easy ride and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the scenes that unfolded in the stands as the possibility -- and then the scale -- of this achievement became apparent. But there will be eyes on them now and any further slices of fortune will, rightly or wrongly, arouse suspicion.
"It was a normal penalty -- in the last minute as in any other minute," said the Equatorial Guinea coach, Esteban Becker, who later called himself "the happiest man in the world". And few would begrudge the affable Becker, who has only been in this job for a month, success like this. But as the dust settles on a night that veered suddenly from near-inertia to chaos, you cannot help wishing that he had happened upon it in a slightly different way.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.