Sebastien Haller scored the decisive goal nine minutes from time as hosts Ivory Coast won their third Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title with a 2-1 victory against Nigeria in the final at Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Sunday.
It was a triumph born of adversity, as the Ivorians clawed their way out of their group after two defeats, including a humbling 4-0 setback to Equatorial Guinea, before finding their form in the knockout rounds with a never-say-die attitude that propelled them to victory.
Nigeria took the lead in the first half thanks to a header from William Troost-Ekong, who rose to meet Samuel Chukwueze’s flick-on from a corner, but Franck Kessie equalised just after the hour mark after being left unmarked at the back post from a set piece.
The Ivorians had to come from behind several times during the tournament, and they did so again when Haller directed Simon Adingra’s cross into the net, much to the delight of his rookie coach Emerse Fae, who had started the tournament as an assistant to Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset, who was fired after the pool stage.
“It was the strength of the group and the mindset that carried us through. We experienced some difficult times, but we rescued ourselves, albeit it wasn’t easy. “The mental fortitude allowed us to restore our chances and achieve what we did today,” stated Ivorian man of the match Adingra.
Borussia Dortmund striker Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July 2022, but he overcame the disease and has been an important player for the Ivorians, despite missing the start of the tournament due to an ankle injury, playing his first game in the last-16 victory over defending champions Senegal. His story exemplifies the fight inside the Ivorian team, who became the first host nation to win the Cup of Nations since Egypt in 2006. All four of their previous continental finals had ended 0-0, with them winning on penalties in 1992 and 2015, both against Ghana, and losing the other two.
The home side dominated much of this year’s final, with Adingra denied by a brilliant save from Nigeria custodian Stanley Nwabali, before the visitors seized the lead with their first shot on goal on 38 minutes. Troost-Ekong scored from Ademola Lookman’s corner, which Chukwueze flicked on, and the Nigerian captain won the second ball ahead of Serge Aurier.
The hosts had a great chance to equalise early in the second half when the ball dropped to Max Gradel in the box, but his powerful drive was saved by Calvin Bassey. Nwabali had to save Adingra’s spectacular long-range strike, but Ivory Coast equalised from the subsequent corner when Kessie was left unmarked at the back post and headed in.
The home side pushed for the winner, and Haller came near with a magnificent overhead kick that went wide of the goal. The big striker didn’t have to wait long for his goal, as he directed Adingras’ whipped cross into the net to cap off an incredible narrative.”Our team had a fantastic tournament, but today Ivory Coast was better,” Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro remarked.
“Our squad did not perform to our full potential. That is the truth. It wasn’t the same work as in earlier rounds.