Ivory Coast produced a fairytale ending to the most remarkable run at the Africa Cup of Nations as Sebastian Haller’s winner completed a 2-1 comeback win over Nigeria in the final.
The hosts lost two of their group-stage matches, sacked their manager and then pulled off a penalty-shootout victory and a 122nd-minute winner on their way to booking an improbable place in the final.
And yet, just under three weeks after they were hammered 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea to end Jean-Louis Gasset’s reign and leave them on the brink of elimination, Ivory Coast served up another memorable night, this time one that sparked wild celebrations in Abidjan.
They were very much the better side in the opening 45 minutes, but William Troost-Ekong’s header against the run of play gave Nigeria advantage at the break. The Super Eagles had conceded just two goals on their run to the final and, at the halfway stage, looked destined to grind out another narrow win.
Ivory Coast first drew level and then moved in front. Franck Kessie powered home a header of from a set-piece in the hour mark, and Haller then completed the turnaround with ten minutes remaining as he flicked a brilliant finish into the far corner, after yet more superb work from Simon Adingra.
A comeback for Ivory Coast and so too on a personal level for Haller, who in the summer of 2022 was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The striker underwent surgery and four rounds chemotherapy, returning to full training only a year ago. Haller scored the goal that sent Ivory Coast to the final, and the one that got their hands on the AFCON trophy for a third time.
Nigeria went into the match as slight favourites, having beaten Ivory Coast in the group-stage and enjoyed a more serene passage through to the final, even if they did need penalties to edge past South Africa in the last four.
The Elephants though looked far more confident in the early stages, as Max Gradel whipped a number of dangerous crosses into the box and fired an acrobatic effort into the side-netting. Adingra was a constant threat through and went as close as anyone, forcing Stanley Nwabali into a good save.
Nigeria, though, won a corner with their first shot of the game and took the lead with the second from the resulting set-piece, seven minutes before the break. The ball was flicked on at the near post, and Troost-Ekong proved too strong in the air as he powered a header past Yahia Fofana.
That only further solidified the Super Eagles’ gameplan, sitting deep in their shape, often with ten men behind the ball, and relying on an increasingly frustrated Victor Osimhen to hold it up and launch counter-attacks when the chance came.
That felt a dangerous plan early in the second-half, as Gradel was denied only by a brilliant block from Calvin Bassey, and Kessie then nodded a header straight at Nwabali.
The Ivory Coast midfielder only needed to wait a matter of minutes for his goal though, Adingra swing a cross to the back post and Kessie meeting it at the back post for a thoroughly deserved equaliser.
Didier Drogba was among those leading the celebrations in the stands as the atmosphere cranked up several notches, particularly as Haller then fired an overhead kick just wide, the Super Eagles unable to halt the Ivory Coast charge.
As the match moved into the final ten minutes, the decisive moment came, with little surprising about those responsible. Adingra skipped past the helpless Ola Aina once more, crossing it in to the near post and Haller was on hand to flick a finish into the far corner.
Nigeria pushed for a late equaliser to send the match into extra time, but there was to be no more late drama in a tournament that had served up plenty. Ivory Coast held firm, lifting the AFCON trophy for a third time.