It was just the perfect football fairytale. Victory clutched from the jaws of defeat. The winning goalscorer firing his side to glory 18 months after a cancer diagnosis. The victorious manager farcically appointed after his predecessor was sacked mid-tournament.
The Ivory Coast weren’t even supposed to be here. A 4-0 hammering by Equatorial Guinea, the 88th best team in the world, ended the hosts’ group stage in such humiliation coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sent packing before their fate was decided.
They needed late equalisers to keep both their last-16 and quarter-final games alive. But something was written in the stars in Abidjan on Sunday night. Poetic moments aren’t unusual in football, but rarely with this much symmetry.
The Ivory Coast fans swelling the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in the country’s second city could barely believe it themselves as they watched their dream turn to reality.
There were questions how any side who finished third in a group of four could be allowed to progress all the way to the Africa Cup of Nations final, let alone win it. But those have been put aside amidst one of the greatest stories in AFCON history, against the almightiest of odds.
Ivory Coast had won only one game in 90 minutes coming into Sunday’s final, but dominated clear favourites Nigeria from the first minute to the last.
They still had to do things the hard way, recovering from William Troost-Ekong’s first-half header to eventually win 2-1 with Sebastien Haller the perfect protagonist. This was a night for unlikely heroes.
It was only August 2022 when the 29-year-old striker was admitted to hospital with testicular cancer, weeks after signing for Borussia Dortmund. It took two surgeries, four cycles of chemotherapy and eight months away from football before he was eventually fit enough to return last January.
He had played down his recovery as “challenging” ahead of the final but even then admitted to the room of journalists, “given what has happened over the last few months, it’s great to be here in front of you.”
Injury had cruelly ruled him out of much of this tournament too, before he returned to start the semi-final and final.
Sunday night was the ultimate reward, prodding home Simon Adingra’s cross 10 minutes from time to write his name into history. He burst into tears in his post-match interview, the magnitude of how far he has come too much to bear.
“We dreamed of this moment so many times,” Haller said after regaining his composure. “The joyous scenes we see now, what’s happening in the country, they deserve it too. I really hope it does a lot of people good.”
Haller’s story is the crowning glory of the tournament. Interim manager Emerse Fae’s is not quite so remarkable though still makes history in its own way.
The 40-year-old ex-Reading defender started the tournament as assistant to Gasset, before he was thrust into the limelight once the Frenchman was dismissed in disgrace.
Gasset was fired hours before Zambia’s defeat to Morocco ensured they would sneak into the knock-out stages as one of the four best third-placed sides, in spite of their performances.
Fae was one of his assistants but had never managed a senior side. He was not the man many wanted. On paper, he certainly was not the man to turn around a fast-sinking ship at several days’ notice.
He had experienced plenty of pain with his country as a player. He was part of the golden-era side beaten in the 2006 final by Egypt, and thrashed in the semi-finals by the same opponent two years later.
Some players are able to positively channel that pain through management. Fae was not the man with the CV, but he was the man who understood what his country needed.
He kept the demands of his players simple. An opportunity to succeed where he had failed. “We were close to humiliation but when we had a second chance, we were determined not to waste it,” he said.
A penalty shoot-out win over high-flying Senegal, after a late equaliser to salvage their tournament again, rebuilt some national pride. Adingra left it even later to send their quarter-final with Mali to extra-time, where they eventually emerged victorious despite playing for almost 80 minutes with 10 players.
Beating DR Congo 1-0 in the semi-finals might have felt unusually drab. It was the Ivory Coast’s first win in 90 minutes since their opening match, and was enough to earn the monicker ‘The Special One’, 20 years after Jose Mourinho first coined the term.
He might keep it for himself now. His side had shown grit to reach the final, but he led them to a performance of real quality on Sunday to complete their stunning rise from the ashes.
“When I think about all we went through, the hard times when we were almost out and the matches where we came back in last minutes, we have created some miracles,” Fae said after he was named coach of the tournament.
Haller was his hero, while Adingra grew to become his country’s driving force. The final was only the 22-year-old’s 10th international cap, and just his second start of the tournament.
He has become an overnight sensation. Few get fans off their seat like the flying winger – it was his corner which was nodded home by Franck Kessie to cancel out Nigeria’s opener. And his driving run and cross which was turned home for the winner.
“I’ve just experienced one of the most beautiful moments of my life and that’s down to the effort of everyone in the team,” he said afterwards.
This is just the start of his football journey, almost six months to the day since he made his Premier League debut. Plenty more nights like these will follow. But for the Ivory Coast, their next AFCON title will have to be pretty special to match this.