Sebastien Haller completed his miracle comeback from a cancer diagnosis to score the winner for the Ivory Coast and help them lift the Africa Cup of Nations.
The hosts had enjoyed a miraculous run to Sunday’s final against Nigeria at the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara, having qualified for the knockouts as one of the best third-place teams. Their performances in the group stages led to the shock sacking of manager Jean-Louis Gasset, but it turned out to be an inspired move.
After knocking out holders Senegal, the Ivory Coast then claimed a last-minute win over Mali in the quarter-finals and then squeezing past DR Congo in the semis. But while Nigeria started Sunday’s clash as the favourites, their hosts were on top for much of the early stages.
A succession of set-pieces saw them turn the screw, but Super Eagles keeper Stanley Nwabili was left mostly untroubled. They were then made to pay for their failure to take their chances seven minutes before the break.
The Ivory Coast defence failed to deal with a corner, allowing Nigeria skipper Troost-Ekong to power home the game’s first goal. In truth, it was an undeserved lead, with Nigeria having failed to give star attacker Victor Osimhen any real service.
The game continued in much the same way after half-time, with the Ivory Coast putting the Nigerian goal under intense pressure. Four minutes into the second period, Fulham defender Calvin Bassey was forced to make a brilliant goal-line block, with Max Gradel’s shot just being slowed down enough as it went through his legs.
The hosts then saw calls for a penalty waved away by referee Dahane Beida, when Gradel claimed he had been brought down by Zaidu Sanusi. But replays showed there was minimal contact, with Nwabali and Sèrge Aurier instead being booked for their protests.
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On the hour mark, the Ivory Coast again came agonisingly close, but Franck Kessie’s header lacked the power to beat Nwabili. But Kessie made up for that miss moments later when he was left free at the back post to head in an equaliser.
The stadium erupted into celebrations, but the home fans were brought back to Earth soon after when Troost-Ekong aimed a header just over the bar. Les Éléphants were almost celebrating with 20 minutes to go, but Sebastien Haller’s acrobatic effort went just wide of the post.
But Haller was not to be denied with eight minutes to go when he delivered a brilliant finish from Simon Adingra. The striker stuck out a leg to send the ball flying past Nwabili, with Nigeria unable to get themselves back into the game.
The hosts faced a nervy time in the closing stages, with the match officials adding on an extra seven minutes, but they were able to hold out to win the tournament for just the third time. It marks a remarkable comeback for Haller, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2022, but now he can celebrate after leading his country to a famous win.
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