LUANDA, January 11 – Mali made a miraculous recovery to pull back from a four goal deficit to hold Angola to a 4-4 draw in the opening game of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations here on Sunday.
The hosts appeared set for the best possible start when a first half double from Flavio Armado and penalties from Gilberto and Manucho had them celebrating a famous victory.
With only 16 minutes on the clock Mali looked down and out.
But a double from Seydou Keita and contributions from Frederic Kanoute and Mustapha Yattabare gave them an improbable draw.
Angola coach Manuel Jose said: "This draw tasted like a defeat to me, this is one of the most bitter pills I’ve ever had to swallow in all the matches of my long career.
"Football in Africa is learning on the road, we have the skills but we were a little naive.
"It makes the next match a little more complicated. The public deserved a win."
Angola skipper Kali added: "We have to raise our heads – I’m so sad and sorry – there’s no explanation for letting go of such a big lead.
"But we’ve got to give a good response in our next match."
Mali coach Stephen Keshi, who lifted the title with Nigeria as a player in the 1990s, didn”t know whether to laugh or cry.
"It was a little difficult to believe we might come back. I’ve got mixed feelings, I’m happy with a draw but upset with my team."
This Nations Cup curtain raiser began with a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of Friday’s deadly gun attack on the Togo team coach in Cabinda.
The silence, immaculately observed by the 50,000 capacity crowd, turned to something much louder seconds after kick off when Mali goalkeeper Mahamadou Sidibe had to look lively to deal with Flavio’s shot from the left.
The Angolan striker only made the starting XI after shrugging off injury but Keita was on the bench after missing the Eagles’ warm-up games with a thigh problem.
Angola were forced into an unscheduled change of personnel in the 22nd minute when Aderito Carvalho was stretchered off and replaced by Djalma Campos.
Mali coach Stephen Keshi sent Barcelona midfielder Keita into the fray sooner than expected when Le Mans forward Modibo Maiga limped out of contention.
This was the first ever match at the 11 November stadium built by the Chinese and resembling a smaller version of Beijing’s Birds’ Nest.
And the ‘Chicks Nest’ burst into life in the 35th minute when Flavio raced on to Gilberto’s angled 20 metre freekick from the left to put the hosts’ in front with a low powerful header.
One minute from the break Flavio got his double, another fine header set up by fullback Jose ‘Malbina’ Alberto.
That prompted the wife of Angolan head of state Jose Eduardo dos Santos to jump off her seat and execute a very un-First Lady style jig.
Mali’s multi-million pound strikeforce led by Sevilla’s Kanoute had proved strangely impotent in the first half.
They looked a more purposeful force after the interval, with only Angola keeper Carlos Fernandes’ charge out of his box stopping Mali captain Mahamadou Diarra’s shot.
Gilberto then struck from the spot after he was brought down in the box by Mamadou Samassa.
The Al-Ahly midfielder proved a cool customer as he converted, but was then ordered to have a second go by Egyptian referee Essam Abdel Fatah, which he duly struck past Sidibe.
Manucho got Angola’s fourth, also from the spot after another foul on Gilberto.
But then Angola crumbled.
Keita began the comeback after a scramble for the ball in the box following a mistake by Fernandes.
Then Kanoute struck with a classy header, with Keita producing a volley for his double and Yattabare grabbing a highly unlikely point for the Eagles.