Harare — The explosive incident happened during the final Group B decider in Libreville, which produced half-a-dozen goals, with the Carthage Eagles romping to a 4-2 victory -- with all their goals coming in the first half -- which secured them a place in the quarter-finals. The Tunisians, needing a draw to reach the quarter-finals, led 4-1 at the break before substitute Tendai Ndoro scored early in the second half to give the Warriors a flicker of hope of staging an incredible comeback and scrap into the last eight of the AFCON finals for the first time in their history.
A victory for the Warriors on Monday night would have taken them into the quarter-finals after Senegal, who rested virtually the entire team that had beaten Tunisia and Zimbabwe in their first two group matches, managed to come from behind twice and hold Algeria to a 2-2 draw in the other final Group B game in Franceville.
The Tunisians powered to a 3-0 lead, in their match against the Warriors, before a beauty by the outstanding Knowledge Musona -- his trickery eliminating two defenders by flicking the ball between them before he volleyed home from inside the area -- reduced the arrears for Zimbabwe and gave them hope to stage an incredible comeback.
But those hopes were soon dashed, shortly after Musona had scored, when the Carthage Eagles were awarded a contentious penalty, strangely given by the assistant referee who ran to take his spot behind the Warriors' goal without even waiting for consultations with the referee, as is usually the case in such circumstances.
Television replays clearly showed that the Tunisian forward should have been punished for controlling the ball with his hand, under pressure from Zimbabwean centre-back Costa Nhamoinesu, before the defender made the push that resulted in him being punished by the assistant referee for a foul resulting in the penalty which was converted by Wahbi Khazri.
Warriors coach Callisto Pasuwa told the media, in the post-match conference, he felt there were some questionable decisions by Ivorian referee and his assistants, which played a big part in the outcome of the match, even though he also conceded his players could have done better in the way they applied themselves in this winner-take-all showdown.
"There were some poor decisions from the referee, especially in the first half," said Pasuwa. "We lacked concentration maybe in first minutes of the game and that made us lose the game.
"You can see the way we were leaving them unattended and allowing them to shoot at goal. In the second half it was becoming better though. I thought also they reacted to the officiating and frustration crippled in their heads and they were doing unnecessary tackles that ended up costing us at the end of the day."
Pasuwa has been criticised by some analysts for pointing fingers at the match officials when his men were outplayed by their opponents who were better technically and appeared to have more energy than the Warriors whose shortcomings in defence were cruelly exposed while their shape in midfield left a lot to be desired.
But, as the brutal post-mortem of the Warriors' failure in Gabon gathers momentum, with Sports and Recreation Minister Makhosini Hlongwane being forced to issue a public apology in Parliament on Wednesday where he faced furious legislators, including one who even demanded the players and their coaching staff be detained at some military barracks for letting the nation down, it has emerged that the do-or-die showdown against Tunisia was also tainted by controversy.
The Herald has exclusively been told that there was an ugly bust-up between Ivorian referee Dembele and one of the Warriors' stars during the final Group B game against Tunisia.
"The incident was sparked by a row between one of our star players and the referee after he said he heard the referee asking his assistant what was the scoreline in the other group match between Algeria and Senegal while our game was in progress," sources told The Herald.
"Our player was taken aback by that and asked the referee and his assistant as to why they wanted to know the scoreline in the other match since their responsibility was just about handling our game as fairly as possible.
"It was quite ugly and one of our coaching staff also said he heard it and wondered what this meant given that the events in the other match had a bearing to our fate.
"It's strange, but that's what happened."
Interestingly, Dembele had been a controversial appointment for the match between Zimbabwe and Tunisia given that he had been the fourth official when the Warriors played their first match against Algeria in Gabon.
It's the only case where one referee was involved in more than one match involving the same team during the group games in Gabon.
The Warriors were also the only team, during the group stages of the AFCON finals, who had more than one match being handled by referees from the same country.
Dembele was assisted by his countryman, Tan Donatien Marius, who was the first assistant referee, when the Warriors took on Tunisia in their final group match in Libreville.
The two Ivorian match officials had partnered to handle the CAF Confederation Cup match between Tunisian giants Etoile Sportive du Sahel against Moroccan club Kawkab Marrakech last year which the Tunisians lost 1-2 with Dembele giving them a penalty late in the game, only for the Moroccans to find the winner towards the end.
Etoile provided three players -- goalkeeper Aymen Mathlonthi, defender Zied Boughatass and midfielder Hamza Lahmar -- to the Tunisian squad which is in Gabon.
The Warriors also had a set of Moroccan match officials -- referee Redouane Tiyed and first assistant referee Redouane Achik -- in charge of their second group game against Senegal.
"When you look at all the other group matches you will see that Zimbabwe were the only ones who had match officials, coming from the same country, handling more than one of their games and that's quite interesting, isn't it?" sources said.
"You look at that decision to say Mushekwi (Nyasha) had fouled his marker, when Tunisia were still leading 1-0 and you also look at that penalty which should have been a foul for handball against that Tunisian and everything appears to make sense."
The Mighty Warriors were also given a raw deal when they suffered the injustice of being robbed a point by a shocking refereeing decision in Cameroon when a goal, which was very clear, which they scored against Egypt, was somehow ruled out and it made a big difference."