Sebastien Haller came out the hero for Ivory Coast yet again as the team came from behind to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the AFCON final. The match was played at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Sunday. Ivory Coast is the first host country to win the Cup of Nations since Egypt in 2006.
The victory marks Ivory Coast’s third AFCON triumph, bringing them level with Nigeria as the joint-fourth most successful team in tournament’s history. Only Ghana (4), Cameroon (5) and Egypt (7) have more AFCON titles to their name. For Nigeria, this was the fifth time that they had fallen short in an AFCON final.
Haller had previously scored the game-winner in the semi-finals against DR Congo to advance to the final. It’s been only 13 months since his return from testicular cancer, which makes his phenomenal performance throughout the competition even more incredible.
The overall tempo of the match started in favor of Ivory Coast with a huge 57,000 crowd behind the home team. The first goal however went in favor of Nigeria, against the run of play.
William Troost-Ekong nailed a powerful header past the Ivory Coast keeper to give his team the lead. There was a front-post scramble between several players which was won by the Nigerian captain who leapt high to head the ball into the net. It was the only goal scored by either team in the first half.
It should be noted that Ivory Coast almost equalized early in the second half, when a bouncing ball fell right to Max Gradel at point-blank range. Unfortunately his kick was deflected by the left leg of Calvin Bassey and was cradled easily by Stanely Nwabali.
Franck Kessie was however able to equalize for the hosts from an Adingra corner in the 62nd minute. He was left unmarked at the back post which ended up in an easy push past the Nigerian keeper.
Haller came into action in the 81st minute, flicking in a Simon Adingra cross with the toe of his boot to put Ivory Coast up a goal. With only 9 minutes to go in regulation, Nigeria went hard to try and push the match to extra time.
Portuguese coach José Peseiro sent on several attacking substitutes to support Victor Osimben but to no success. The Ivory Coast’ defense held firm to secure a famous victory that will live on in the memory of fans for a long time to come.
Second Chance For Ivory Coast
It was a remarkable comeback into the tournament after an extremely slow start. The Ivorians first lost 1-0 to Nigeria in their second match and then to Equatorial Guinea, 4-0. The second defeat was their worst home defeat in history and the team looked like they wouldn’t make it out of the group stage.
Luckily for them, Ivory Coast just squeezed into the round of 16 as one of the top four third-place teams in the groups. From there the hosts looked like a very different team.
First they defeated Senegal on penalties in the last 16 after equalizing late in regular time. They then went on to face Mali in the quarter finals, which they once again came victorious from, 2-1, with a late winner. Both teams had been reduced to 10 men in the first half.
In their last test before the final, Ivory Coast needed to get past DR Congo. After a scoreless game in the first half, once again the hosts were able to find a way to score late off the boot of Haller.
The victory didn’t come without drama, as it included the departure of coach Jean-Louis Gasset after two defeats in the group stage. New coach, Emerse Faé, took over for the team from the knockout stage. It’s unclear if he will stay on as the coach following the tournament.
Ivory Coast spent an estimated $1bn on hosting the tournament and even more on improving infrastructure in the country. The win will mean a lot to the country, as was seen when Ivorian President Alassane Outtara joined in the post-match celebrations in the stadium bearing his name.