BAFOUSSAM, Cameroon (AP) — Sadio Mané saved Senegal with a 97th-minute penalty to beat Zimbabwe 1-0 at the African Cup of Nations on Monday. Morocco won the first meeting of heavyweights with a late goal to edge Ghana, also 1-0.
Neither game produced much high-quality soccer despite them involving three title contenders but they didn’t disappoint that many fans in Cameroon as both were played in front of sparse crowds.
Poor attendances when the host nation is not playing is a perennial problem for the African Cup. This year, only people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and can show proof of negative virus tests are allowed into the stadiums. The stringent restrictions were brought in late because of the omicron variant, meaning the crowds might be even smaller than normal.
Crowds will also be capped at 60% of the stadium’s capacity for all games not involving the home team. Neither of the stadiums used for the four games on the second day of the tournament were remotely near 60% full.
Senegal, Africa’s top-ranked team, opened its campaign with an unconvincing win in Group B over a Zimbabwe team ranked 101 places below it. It was a win nonetheless as Senegal sneaked victory despite being without goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and captain Kalidou Coulibaly, who have tested positive for the virus.
Other teams also made do without key players because of positive virus tests as many might have to throughout the monthlong tournament. Gabon was missing Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nice midfielder Mario Lemina when it beat tournament debutant Comoros 1-0 in the day’s last game.
Every game ended 1-0 as Guinea beat Malawi in the other game.
Mané sent goalkeeper Petros Mhari the wrong way and drilled his very late penalty into the left corner at the Kouekong Stadium in Cameroon’s western city of Bafoussam. The Liverpool forward took his chance after Zimbabwe midfielder Kelvin Madzongwe was penalized for handball in the fourth minute of injury time as the game suddenly ended in drama.
Zimbabwe protested vehemently but referee Mario Escobar of Guatemala stuck by his decision after referring to a video review, which is being used at every game at the African Cup for the first time. Madzongwe had thrown himself to the ground trying to block a shot and the ball struck his arm.
A first-half goal from Issiaga Sylla gave Guinea its victory over Malawi in the other Group B game, which followed Senegal-Zimbabwe at the same stadium.
Morocco-Ghana at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde seemed headed for 0-0 when Sofiane Boufal suddenly pounced on a loose ball that bounced off a Ghana defender to score Morocco’s 83rd-minute winner in the Group C opener.
Ghana captain Andre Ayew finished the game with a bandage wrapped round his head and blood seeping through it after a clash of heads with Morocco skipper Romain Saiss.
Gabon striker Aaron Boupendza stepped up in the absence of Aubameyang to smash home Gabon’s winner with a left-foot strike into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Boupendza celebrated with a cartwheel and back flip and Gabon got what it needed from its opening game without its two best players.
There have been virus outbreaks in many of the 24 squads and it seems the African Cup will soldier on through them. In an update to its tournament rules because of the virus, the Confederation of African Football has said teams must fulfil fixtures if they have at least 11 players healthy and available, even if it means they won’t have any substitutes.
The positives — tests that is — kept coming on Monday when the Egypt soccer federation announced its president, Gamal Allam, tested positive while in Cameroon. He did not have symptoms and all of the players tested negative, the federation said.
Egypt and Mohamed Salah start their tournament against Nigeria on Tuesday in another heavyweight meeting of former champions.
Cameroon’s African Cup opened Sunday when the host team beat Burkina Faso 2-1, finally ending a three-year wait for this tournament for the Central African nation. Cameroon was stripped of the right to host the 2019 African Cup and then saw its second chance in 2021 postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
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