Abidjan, Ivory Coast: From despair to joy, Ivory Coast’s AFCON journey to the final has been a testament to resilience, comebacks, and unexpected heroes.
After flirting with elimination throughout the tournament, the host nation stands poised for a historic final clash against Nigeria on Sunday. The match is pencilled in for 10PM [SA time] at the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan.
Both teams possess contrasting stories. Nigeria, a three-time champion, seeks a fourth crown with a smooth path marked by moments of brilliance. Ivory Coast, fuelled by home advantage and years of near misses, rose from the ashes after early stumbles.
Written off following defeats to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 champions clawed their way back. A late equaliser against pre-tournament favourite Senegal in the last 16 secured a quarterfinal berth, while a last-gasp winner against Mali and DR Congo propelled them to the final.
Midway through the campaign, the hosts sacked Jean Louis Gasset after that 4-0 defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea. After failed attempts to lure 2012 AFCON winner Herve Renard, they settled for the unlikely hero Emerse Fae.
The former Reading midfielder emphasises a “level playing field” despite contrasting starts to the tournament. “We have a great opportunity to keep the trophy at home. We know that when you organise a tournament, it is difficult to go on and win it,” Fae told journalists on Saturday.
“We have made the final, and tomorrow, we have the opportunity to achieve this feat and, at the same time, add a third star to the orange jersey of Côte d’Ivoire.”
He banks on the experience of Sebastien Haller, with Seko Fofana and Franck Kessie controlling the midfield. Simon Adingra also provides a threat in attack.
WHAT MAKES SUNDAY’S AFCON FINAL SPECIAL FOR SEBASTIEN HALLER
Borussia Dortmund star Haller embodies Ivory Coast’s remarkable journey. Battling testicular cancer and recent club disappointments, he emerged as the semi-final hero.
Despite an ankle injury and limited playing time, he returned at the crucial moment, contributing from the bench and scoring in vital penalty shootouts. His volley in the semi-final sealed victory, making him a symbol of the team’s transformation.
Downplaying his role, Haller acknowledged the pressure of a home final but embraced it. “Pressure is part of the game; it helps us push even more.” Sunday’s final represents personal and national redemption for Haller and Ivory Coast, a chance to rewrite their narratives and lift the trophy on home soil.
But Nigeria coach Peseiro says his players are equally hungry for it. “Playing a final is always important. This is my first AFCON. Some were saying it’s been special, and I can attest to that. The emotions in Africa are very special. All of this, in my opinion, is a great way to learn, and I would love to win it with the Nigerian team,” said the Portuguese coach.
“I learnt tremendously here. There is joy when you win but difficult when you lose so it is very important to find a balance. We have a great squad of players that really want to win this for Nigeria. Some are newcomers to the squad but have played in other competitions. Football brings a lot of emotion, more than any sport, and this is important for Nigeria,” he added.
He expects Chippa United star Stanley Nwabali to maintain his defensive solidity while Victor Osimhen, Moses Simon, and Ademola Lookman shoulder offensive responsibility.
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