Sadio Mane beat Zimbabwe 1-0 with a 97th-minute penalty save in the Africa Cup of Nations on Monday. Morocco won their first meeting of the heavyweights and the final goal also gave Ghana a 1-0 lead.
Neither game produced much quality football despite involving three title contenders, but they did not disappoint many fans in Cameroon as both games were played in front of sparse crowds.
Low attendance has been a chronic problem for the Africa Cup of Nations when the host nation does not play. This year, only people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and can prove that they have tested negative for the virus will be able to enter the stadium. Strict restrictions have been delayed due to the omicron variant, which means the crowd may be smaller than normal.
Audiences will also be limited to 60% of stadium capacity for all games that do not involve the home team. The venues used for the four games on the second day of the game were not nearly 60% full.
Africa’s top-ranked Senegal opened Group B with an incredible victory, beating Zimbabwe, which is 101st below it. Still, Senegal emerged victorious despite missing goalkeeper Eduardo Mendy and captain Kalidou Coulibaly, who have tested positive for the virus.
The Africa Cup opens in the shadow of the virus, host Cameroon wins
Other teams are also without key players because they tested positive for the virus, as many teams may have to do during the month-long game. Gabon beat rookie Comoros 1-0 in their final game of the day, missing Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nice midfielder Mario Lemina.
Each match ended 1-0, with Guinea beating Malawi in the other.
At the Kouekong Stadium in the western Cameroonian city of Bafoussam, Mane sent goalkeeper Petros Mahri in the wrong direction and slotted his penalty into the left corner late. The match ended in drama after Zimbabwe midfielder Kelvin Mazumwi was sent off for a handball in the fourth minute of injury time, as the Liverpool striker seized his chance.
Zimbabwe vehemently protested, but Guatemala referee Mario Escobar stood by his decision after referencing a video comment, which was used for the first time in every match of the African Cup of Nations. Madzongwe fell to the ground trying to block the ball, which hit him in the arm.
Issiaga Sylla’s first-half goal gave Guinea a victory over Malawi in another Group B match, followed by Senegal and Zimbabwe at the same stadium.
MOROCCO – Ghana appeared to be leading 0-0 at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaoundé when Sofiane Boufal pounced on a loose ball that bounced off a Ghanaian defender to give Morocco a first-place finish in the Group C opener. 83 minutes to win.
Ghana captain Andre Ayew ended the game with a bandage on his head and blood seeping from his head after a head clash with Morocco captain Romain Sais.
Senegal’s Koulibaly tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Nations Cup opener
Gabon striker Aaron Bupenza stepped forward in Aubameyang’s absence and hit the top of the net with his left foot from a narrow angle to smash the Gabon winner. Boupendza celebrated with a cartwheel and a backflip and Gabon got what it needed from the opening game without its two best players.
With virus outbreaks in many of the 24 teams, it appears that the Africa Cup of Nations will move on through them. Due to the virus, CAF, in updating its rules of the game, said teams must complete matches if they have at least 11 healthy and available players, even if it means they won’t have any substitutes.
Positives — or tests — kept coming when the Egyptian Football Federation announced on Monday that its president, Jamal Alam, had tested positive while in Cameroon. The federation said he was asymptomatic and all players tested negative.
Egypt and Mohamed Salah started their match against Nigeria on Tuesday in another heavyweight meeting for the former champions.
Cameroon’s Africa Cup of Nations kicked off on Sunday with a 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso, finally ending a three-year wait for the central African nation for the tournament. Cameroon was denied the right to host the 2019 African Cup of Nations and subsequently postponed a second chance in 2021 because of the pandemic.