By Mark Gleeson
BATA, Equatorial Guinea (Reuters) - African football sits at yet another crossroad in its search for credibility after farcical and violent scenes in Saturday's quarter-finals at its showpiece event.
A dubious refereeing decision, followed by a violent reaction from aggrieved Tunisian players, put a damper on an African Nations Cup tournament that has been hastily put together with much success in a matter of over just two months.
Equatorial Guinea stepped in just 64 days before kick off as emergency hosts to rescue the tournament and their national team, ranked 118th in the world, have since emerged as unlikely semi-finalists after two successive upset wins.
But soft penalties in both their victory over neighbors Gabon in the group phase and Saturday’s quarter-final triumph over Tunisia take the gloss of two upset results.
The penalty against Tunisia in Bata came in stoppage time and forced the match into extra time.
Although Javier Balboa then scored a stunning free kick winner to put the small central African through to the last four, joyous home celebrations were overshadowed by fighting between the two teams and then an attempt to attack the referee.
Several Tunisian players chased him down the tunnel, attempting to kick and punch him as Seechurn Rajindraprasd was hastily escorted off the field by a phalanx of riot-clad policemen.
The referee’s report will now prove crucial if there is to be any serious sanction but there was enough television evidence of the violent attacks on Saturday for the Confederation of African Football to come down hard on players.
Attacks on referees are all too commonplace in African football but few culprits are ever handed the kind of stiff bans that would severe as a deterrent to others.
Much of it is because of CAF’s failure to properly prosecute such attacks, insisting on relying on the referee’s report when often times the officials are unaware of who attacked them.
The niggling nature of Saturday's game, which included a spitting incident, takes away the gloss off near-heroic efforts by CAF and the hosts to offer an international standard of playing facilities in a country of sparse resources.
Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where ostentatious displays of wealth sit uncomfortably alongside poverty, stepped in rescue the Nations Cup after Morocco were stripped of the right to host it because they sought a postponement for fears over the Ebola virus.
Scepticism over Equatorial Guinea was heightened by coaches' complaints over hotels and transport in the opening days of the tournament but then tempered by the realization of a genuine desire on the part of the hosts to offer the best possibility facilities.
All those efforts, however, are now overshadowed by Saturday's controversy.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)