Ivory Coast crowned AFCON champions as Haller seals fairytale comeback

Hosts Ivory Coast completed one of Africa Cup of Nations’ most memorable comebacks to be crowned champions of Africa for a third time as Nigeria were beaten 2-1 in Abidjan.

Nigeria captain and former Watford centre-back William Troost-Ekong headed the Super Eagles in front against the run of play at the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara (38).

Franck Kessie rose at the far post to meet Simon Adingra’s corner to deservedly level matters (61).

Ivory Coast looked set for an early exit when they lost their final group game 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea but scraped through to the knockout phase before beating Senegal, Mali and DR Congo.

But Sebastien Haller met another Adingra cross to superbly flick home the winner (81) for his most important moment in an Ivory Coast shirt.

It was a poignant moment for the former West Ham striker, who has battled back from being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2022 and will now go down in history among all Ivorians after their third AFCON triumph.

Franck Kessie celebrates Ivory Coast's equaliser
Franck Kessie celebrates Ivory Coast’s equaliser

Player ratings

Nigeria: Nwabali (7); Ajayi (6), Troost-Ekong (8), Bassey (6); Aina (5), Onyeka (7), Iwobi (6), Zaidu (7); Chukwueze (6), Osimhen (5), Lookman (6).

Subs: Yusuf (6), Aribo (n/a), Iheanacho (n/a), Simon (n/a), Moffi (n/a).

Ivory Coast: Y Fofana (6); Aurier (7), Kossounou (7), Ndicka (7), Konan (6); Kessie (8), Seri (7), S Fofana (7); Gradel (7), Haller (8), Adingra (8).

Subs: Singo (6), Diakite (6), I Sangare (n/a), Lazare (n/a), Krasso (n/a).

Man of the match: Sebastien Haller.

An AFCON triumph born from adversity

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Sebastien Haller puts Ivory Coast 2-1 up in the AFCON final against Nigeria

It is not often you qualify from your group as the fourth of four best third-placed sides, sack your coach and end up with your name on the trophy. But this is the Africa Cup of Nations, a competition that is unrivalled when it comes to drama and the improbable made possible.

It was a triumph born from adversity as the Ivorians scraped out of their group following two defeats before finding their form in the knockout rounds with a never-say-die attitude that led them to the title.

Team news

  • Nigeria made two alterations from the semi-final against South Africa. Zaidu Sanusi replaced Bright Samuel at wing-back and Samuel Chukwueze came in for Moses Simon on the right wing.
  • Ivory Coast also made two switches. The captain Serge Aurier and Odilon Kossounou replaced Wilfried Singo and Willy Boly in defence.

Ivory Coast looked out on their feet when they were trounced 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea. They needed favours elsewhere. They had to squeeze past the holders Senegal on penalties. Against Mali, they needed a late equaliser and their semi-final victory over DR Congo was by the narrowest of margins.

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William Troost-Ekong puts Nigeria 1-0 up in the AFCON final against Ivory Coast

And yet, in front of a partisan crowd of 60,000, there was a sense of inevitability that this magical journey on home soil would have its fairytale ending. With Haller, the hosts hit their high point.

Troost-Ekong’s header gave Nigeria a first-half lead as he rose to meet Samuel Chukwueze’s flick-on from a corner, but Kessie equalised just past the hour-mark after being left unmarked at the back post from a set-piece.

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Franck Kessie makes it 1-1 in the AFCON final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria

The Ivorians had to come from behind several times in the tournament and did it again when Haller steered Adingra’s cross into the net, much to the delight of his rookie coach Emerse Fae, who had started the tournament as assistant to sacked Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset.

Eighteen months ago, Haller was faced with the fight of his life having been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

As he was embraced by Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba on the touchline at the final whistle as his country’s match-winner, it was hard not to feel moved by his own personal journey that had reached its zenith.

Besides their goal, Nigeria did not turn up as star striker Victor Osimhen toiled in the sweltering conditions. A fourth AFCON title slipped through their fingers as the night belonged to Ivory Coast.

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