BATA, Equatorial Guinea — Host Equatorial Guinea made it to the semifinals and a referee only just made it out of the stadium in one piece as the African Cup of Nations descended into angry chaos on Saturday.
Equatorial Guinea beat Tunisia 2-1 in extra time to make the last four of the continental championship for the first time, and after being helped in a big way by a hotly-disputed penalty call by the referee in the last minute of normal time.
The worst penalty decision ever. African referees!!! #TUNvEQG
Mauritian referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn was chased by furious Tunisian players, who aimed punches and kicks at him, and only just made it to the safety of the tunnel at the end of the match with a riot police escort.
Congo and Republic of Congo had earlier served up a roller-coaster second half in their quarterfinal, with Congo coming back from 2-0 down with four goals in the last 25 minutes to win 4-2 and reach the semis for the first time in 17 years.
But the drama of that game was completely outdone by the evening’s second quarter at Bata Stadium.
With Equatorial Guinea trailing 1-0 and going out of its home tournament, Seechurn awarded it the hugely contentious penalty in the last minute of normal time, when Ivan Bolado appeared to dive to earn the game-changing spot-kick. Javier Balboa slotted in the penalty deep in stoppage time to send the game to extra time, and also curled in a brilliant winning free kick in the 102nd minute.
But from the moment the penalty was awarded to deny Tunisia, there was a succession of ugly scenes.
Players and coaching staff members clashed near the dugouts, the Tunisian team lost their heads and kicked, tripped and pushed their opponents on the field, and Seechurn had to run for cover at the end, chased by many of Tunisia’s furious players. The players were battered back by riot police as they also tried to get down the tunnel to the referee.
All the while, 35,000 crazed Equatorial Guinea supporters roared and stamped their feet on the metal floors of the stadium to celebrate their team’s historic progression to the last four.
"At the moment, I’m the happiest man in the world," Equatorial Guinea coach Esteban Becker said.
Tunisia coach Georges Leekens — who had angrily faced up to Esteban on the sidelines during some of the numerous melees — said his team was cheated.
"At the end, it’s no good for football," he said. "It’s very difficult to accept."
Earlier Saturday at the same stadium, Congo also made it to the semis, but only after defensive lapses had let in Republic of Congo’s Dore Ferebory for the opener in the 55th minute, and again when Thievy Bifouma swept in a loose ball seven minutes later for a 2-0 lead.
It seemed that was that, and Congo goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba yelled furiously at his defenders.
Less than 20 minutes later Kidiaba was crying for joy and hugging one of the defenders after his team launched a thrilling comeback. Then, he was bouncing across the field with his renowned bum-shuffle celebration.
Congo’s progress revived memories of a bygone era, when it was champion of Africa in 1968 and 1974 and one of the continent’s soccer powers. It has only made the semis once since ’74.
Dieumerci Mbokani began the fight back for the class of 2015 almost straight away, tapping in after being set up by Yannick Bolasie. Loteteka Bokila powered a shot into the roof of the net in the 75th for 2-2. And less than 20 minutes after Republic of Congo had gone 2-0 up, Congo was ahead 3-2 when substitute Joel Kimuaki glanced in a header from a free kick.
Republic of Congo had collapsed.
"All of us coaches all over the world know it’s not over until it’s finished," Republic of Congo coach Claude Le Roy said. "It was a terrible game."
Mbokani made sure with a breakaway for his second in stoppage time, and Congo awaits the winner of Sunday’s Ivory Coast-Algeria quarterfinal.
Equatorial Guinea will face the winner of the other quarterfinal between Ghana and Guinea.