Afcon gets majestic end it deserves as Ivory Coast seal a most unlikely victory

Ivory Coast 2-1 Nigeria (Kessie 62′, Haller 81′ | Troost-Ekong 38′)

ABIDJAN — Nigeria believed that they had slayed the zombies; think on. If you didn’t know that this Ivory Coast team have magical powers of recovery and resolve, you hadn’t been watching this Africa Cup of Nations. And if you hadn’t been watching this Africa Cup of Nations, your life has been all the poorer for it. A majestic competition got its most unlikely event of all: a majestic final.

Imagine, if you will, the ingredients you would select for your perfect major tournament win, if God allowed you to talk his talk and walk his walk for a few weeks. There would be adversity, naturally: try losing 4-0, then 1-0, sacking your coach and coming within one goal in a different group from the knockout stages being someone else’s dream.

Throw in a protagonist so unfathomable that he might just be unprecedented in the history of his sport. Let’s be real: Emerse Fae was appointed in place of Jean-Louis Gasset because he was there. He had never managed a senior match before this tournament and it is reported that the Ivorian Football Association asked tournament veteran Herve Renard first. Fae has lifted a major trophy after the fourth game of his managerial career. Surely that is a record.

For reasons of brevity, there are mini miracles that we must skip past. Past the knockout stage qualification itself, thanks to Ghana conceding twice in stoppage time against Mozambique and other such silliness. Past Ivory Coast trailing with four minutes to go in one knockout tie and less than that in another. We must do this because the final itself will one day merit chapters, not sentences.

Could you tell that this country of 28 million was excited? On Saturday, one local channel had rolling coverage throughout the day and night based solely on the final and everything that had come before. The Alassane Ouattara Stadium started to fill up five hours before kick-off. In early afternoon, all roads leading north from the city were flanked in orange and white by those walking to the game, looking for a ticket or just busying themselves until evening.

That had created an odd pride, the one that usually follows bumpy fall. Staring their calamity so closely in the face that they could feel its breath may prepare a public for failure – here it seemed to immune them from it. They were not wary, quite the opposite; they felt untouchable, as if their fate had already been agreed by some deal made with fate itself.

But orange and white seemed to have been shafted by that shady seller of futures. The ball broke in midfield, the peerless Alex Iwobi playing in left-back Zaidu Sanusi. His first touch was sloppy, allowing a tame shot to be blocked and provoke another scream of Ivorian appreciation.

The result: Nigeria’s first corner and first proper chance. Troost-Ekong was the second top goalscorer at this tournament and they haven’t all been penalties. It was a magnificent header, a run and hurling jump akin to a man trying to charge down a door. Poor Yahia Fofana barely met the ball’s passing acquaintance.

And then the magic happens, as it has done so often over the last few weeks that an entire country feels blessed. The first goal was slightly messy, although merited by Nigerian manager Jose Peseiro’s determination to sit on what he had to leave Victor Osimhen so frustrated and isolated. Pressure built and it rarely bursts out in a beautiful way.

Another corner, another free man, a goalkeeper drifting foolishly into no man’s land and a Franck Kessie header – he has been something else during this tournament. Roughly 100 yards away, Didier Drogba ran around a VIP section like a small child who realises that it’s the first day of holidays. Drogba never won this tournament. These are his heroes now.

And so we arrive at the winner, the Ivory Coast’s goal to end all goals. Eighteen months ago, Sebastien Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Not only was he unsure when or whether he would play football again, his life took on a different meaning. He had to survive first, to fight against a horrible disease. It is far too twee to compare sporting competition and such ghoulish opposition, but football was certainly Haller’s focus.

Again, let’s skip forward. Simon Adingra, one of Brighton’s jewels and the final’s best player, skipped past Ola Aina as he had done too often before. His cross was too far in front of his centre forward for comfort and arrived at Haller ahead of the front post. So he lifted a leg above waist height, glanced the ball with a stud and directed it beyond Stanley Nwabali.

These, then, are the ingredients. No more, no less: a perfect recipe. No further drama required, no more actors to fit on the stage to take their bows or lift their trophies. They stood for hours after full-time, staring at those dream weavers who stared back with exactly the same amount of disbelief.

This last month has produced the best Africa Cup of Nations this century by a distance It has produced perhaps the most extraordinary turnaround in a major tournament, from pathetic start to extraordinary climax, anywhere in the world over the same period.

It has two people at its epicentre who deserve repetition. Fae, who never imagined he could ever be part of these moments. Haller, who deep down can only have feared that he may not get to even try.

There are times when sport in 2024 feels deeply impure, its future in the hands of geopolitics and state wealth. This tournament knows that more than many others. Sndf then there are other times, even if only temporary flickers of sunlight, where sport finds a way. We must bask in their brightness and warmth. This is the good stuff.

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