FREETOWN – Benin refused to honour a scheduled decisive African Cup of Nations – Afcon qualifying game against Sierra Leone on Tuesday after the hosts alleged that five of the visitor’s players had tested positive for COVID-19 – just before kick-off and therefore ineligible for the fixture.
The circus left the final place at next year’s Afcon undecided on the last day of qualifying. Sierra Leone needed to win at home to reach the tournament for the first time in 25 years. Benin needed only a draw.
One of these nations would have become the 24th team to reach the finals in Cameroon –scheduled for next year, to complete the lineup.
The positive tests were announced just before kick-off in Freetown. Two hours after the scheduled kick-off time, and with no sign of the Benin team, the Sierra Leone Football Association announced the game had been canceled and that the Confederation of African Football – Caf would have to make a ruling on what happens next.
The Benin squad was reportedly already heading for the airport to take a flight home.
It’s not the first time during this African Cup qualifying competition that travelling teams have cried foul over local authorities’ COVID-19 tests.
Kenya complained when four key players were ruled ineligible for a qualifier in Togo on Monday, also after test results were announced on the day of the game. Kenya Federation president Nick Mwendwa said the players forced out of the game had all tested negative in Kenya days earlier.
Uganda had similar threats quashed at Caf level on Monday ahead of their game against hosts Malawi. It wasn’t therefore surprising that Malawi won 1-0 to take the remaining group B slot.
The Benin-Sierra Leone cancellation was the second bizarre incident on the final day of qualifiers.
Ivory Coast’s game against Ethiopia ended 10 minutes early after Ghanaian referee Charles Bulu collapsed and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. The fourth official was from Ivory Coast and couldn’t officiate.
Ivory Coast was leading 3-1 with goals from Willy Boly, Franck Kessié and Jean Evrard Kouassi when the game ended with no more play. Although Ethiopia’s soccer federation said the result would be cancelled, both teams have qualified.
Despite the loss, Ethiopia went through when Madagascar drew 0-0 with Niger in the other Group K game. Ivory Coast had already reached the finals.
Three other teams sealed their places at the Cup of Nations in their last games: Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.
Aboubakar Kamara scored in first-half injury time to see Mauritania to a 1-0 win in Central African Republic, taking the second qualifying place in Group E behind Morocco. Guinea-Bissau beat Republic of Congo 3-0 to jump ahead of its opponent and qualify from Group I alongside Senegal.
Cape Verde seized a place from Group F with a 1-0 win in Mozambique thanks to an own goal. Cameroon topped that group but was already assured of playing at the African Cup as host.
Defending champion Algeria and other African soccer heavyweights Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia had all already qualified.
Algeria finished unbeaten and thrashed Botswana 5-0 in its last qualifier on Monday. Egypt rounded off its campaign on Monday with a 4-0 win over Comoros, with two of those goals from Mohamed Salah.
The surprise qualifiers for Cameroon are Gambia and Comoros, who will make their African Cup debuts, and Sudan, who beat South Africa on Sunday to book a place ahead of the former champion.
The African Cup was meant to take place in January and February this year but was postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.