Just over a year since he returned to soccer after recovering from testicular cancer, Sébastien Haller scored the winning goal as Ivory Coast beat Nigeria 2-1 to clinch the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title on Sunday.
The striker completed a dramatic comeback with a goal in the 81st minute, sending the home crowd into wild celebrations at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium.
It was an emotional moment for Haller who was diagnosed with cancer back in 2022, just days after signing for German club Borussia Dortmund.
After two operations and four rounds of chemotherapy, the 29-year-old completed an extraordinary recovery as he returned to the sport in February 2023, capping it off with a seismic moment: scoring his first competitive goal for Dortmund on World Cancer Day last season.
His journey epitomized his country’s campaign at this year’s AFCON, which started in the worst possible way.
After winning its opening group game, Les Éléphants then lost the remaining two, including an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea.
Ivory Coast appeared to be completing a dreadful tournament and fired its manager Jean-Louis Gasset, thinking that the squad had crashed out at the group stage. However, a miraculous series of results in other matches led to the host nation scraping through to the knockout stages by virtue of being one of the four best third-placed teams.
A search for a caretaker manager to guide the team ensued, with Emerse Faé eventually emerging as the chosen candidate – his first managerial role at the senior level – after various options had fallen through.
Matched up against the defending champion Senegal in the round of 16, Faé was immediately handed a tough task and the team came close to elimination – a late equalizer saving the host nation before it won a pulsating penalty shootout.
In the quarterfinals against Mali, Ivory Coast pulled off yet another great escape, once again scoring a last-minute equalizer before grabbing a winner in extra-time.
Haller, who had missed the group stages through injury, returned for the knockout stages and was on hand to score the winner in the semifinal against Congo.
The team’s uncanny ability to come back from the brink had earned them the nickname ‘Zombie Elephants’ and Ivory Coast lived up to its moniker again in the final.
After Nigeria had taken a first-half lead through William Troost-Ekong’s header, the host nation fought its way back into the match.
Cheered on from the stands by legendary striker Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast equalized just after the hour mark through Franck Kessié.
The stage was set for Haller to then flick Simon Adingra’s cross into the net with just nine minutes left of regulation time, completing a stunning comeback both personally and for the team.
“It’s the power of the group and the mindset that put us through. We had some challenging moments, but we rescued ourselves, although it wasn’t easy,” Ivory Coast’s Adingra said after the game, per Reuters.
“The mental fortitude saw us restore our chances and do what we achieved today.”
Drogba was not the only soccer legend in attendance. Former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and FIFA President Gianni Infantino also watched as Ivory Coast claimed its third AFCON title.
CNN’s Matias Grez contributed reporting.
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