Sebastien Haller once again proved his worth for Ivory Coast, leading the Elephants to a thrilling victory over Nigeria in the final of the 2023 AFCON, held on home soil.
The striker, who had also scored the semi-final winner just 13 months after his return from testicular cancer, delicately redirected Simon Adingra’s cross into the net with nine minutes left on the clock. This goal sealed a remarkable second-half comeback and ignited exuberant celebrations in Abidjan.
William Troost-Ekong gave Nigeria the lead just before the end of the first half with a strong header from a corner.
Franck Kessie scored the equaliser in the 62nd minute after being left unmarked at the back post from Adingra’s corner.
Following an impressive journey to the final, which saw coach Jean-Louis Gasset stepping down after two losses in the group stage, the Ivorians secured their third continental title with a well-earned triumph.
The West Africans have added to their previous Nations Cup victories in 1992 and 2015, making them the first tournament hosts to win since Egypt claimed the trophy in 2006.
Under the guidance of interim coach Emerse Fae, Ivory Coast showcased their prowess in the knockout stages with thrilling wins over defending champions Senegal and Mali. These victories were secured through late equalisers, adding to the excitement of the matches.
Ivory Coast invested over $1bn (£0.79bn) in hosting the tournament, along with a similar amount dedicated to improving infrastructure in the country. Ivorian President Alassane Outtara participated in the post-match celebrations at the stadium named after him.
The Elephants receive a substantial $7m (£5.54m) in prize money as ultimate winner of the 2023 AFCON edition, while Nigeria is granted $4m by the Confederation of African Football.
Nigeria, a team with a rich history of success, had an impressive record at the finals. They even managed to secure a 1-0 victory against the Ivorians in the group stage. However, the Super Eagles struggled to assert themselves in the game, as they spent most of the contest on the defensive.
At the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Ivory Coast had the better of the first half’s passionate crowd, but they were unable to score because Nigeria sat deep and absorbed all of the pressure.
Halfway through the first half, play resumed after a brief interval for beverages. Adingra had a shot from a tight angle blocked by Stanley Nwabali, and Odilon Kossounou saved a corner kick from left defender Zaidu Sanusi.
Ivory Coast midfielder Jean Michael Seri lifted a corner from Ademola Lookman and sent it flying towards the near post. Troost-Ekong, soaring over Serge Aurier, redirected the ball across goal, beating Elephants custodian Yahia Fofana’s despairing dive.
Adingra, the Ivorian left winger, was the driving force behind the Ivorians’ resurgence after the break.
Calvin Bassey made an important stop to deny an equaliser as Max Gradel pounced on the loose ball after Nwabali turned away a threatening low cross from the Brighton winger.
As a consequence of the Nigerian defense’s inability to keep Kessie in the box, the Elephants were able to equalise from the ensuing corner as Nwabali dove to his right to deflect a long-range drive from Kossounou wide.
The Super Eagles nearly equalised when Troost-Ekong missed the target with a header from Ademola Lookman’s free-kick. However, the game-winning goal came from a brilliant finish by Haller, who made a spectacular leap with his right leg to deftly redirect a cross from Adingra beyond Nwabali.
After a record-breaking amount of goals, relentless upsets, and what seemed like an endless capacity for drama, the event, which was postponed from its original June and July staging last year due to weather concerns in West Africa, will live long in the memory.
Much of it came from the hosts, who looked like they were about to crash out of the tournament after suffering a shocking 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in their last Group A match.
Following Gasset’s departure as coach, Fae was able to restore faith in the team, which had been reborn as one of the four best-ranked third-place teams.
After Morocco’s victory over Zambia in the last group game prevented the southern Africans from pilfering their spot, advancement was assured. Ivory Coast co-captain Max Gradel hoisted the national flag of Morocco before hoisting the trophy.
After a season-ending record loss at home, Elephants fans were understandably shaken. However, they rallied behind a team that displayed remarkable mental toughness to beat Senegal and Mali in two thrilling matches before a far more easy semi-final victory against DR Congo.
In 2006, Fae played every minute for the Ivory Coast national team that finished second to Egypt. Now, in only his fourth game as a senior manager, he has won Africa’s biggest award.
The hosts kept their cool in front of a sea of orange in the final, despite falling behind against the run of play, highlighting the tenacity of the 40-year-old’s team.
After losing to Cameroon in 1984 and now Ivory Coast, Nigeria would be forced to mourn their fifth Nations Cup final setback. Ivory Coast became the 12th host team to win the title.