LESS than three weeks ago, Ivory Coast were reeling at their lowest ebb – almost dead in the water. Going nowhere very fast.
Even Zimbabweans who did not qualify as they were banned by FIFA for almost two years over leadership, government interference and corruption issues laughed at them. They had truly become a continental laughing stock.
But in football anything is possible as they say. Miracles do happen in the beautiful game. Now, the Ivorians are champions of Africa on home soil after beating Nigeria 2-1 last night at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium – miraculously rising from the dead.
Incredible feat. From disastrous early stages performances – including a humiliating 4-0 routing by Equatorial Guinea and subsequent firing of coach Jean-Louis Gasset – to unexpectedly being champions. Truly beyond belief.
But then again that is how it ended: 2-1 for Ivory Coast against Nigeria, sparking wild celebrations in Abidjan.
Sebastien Haller was the hero again as the Elephants came from behind to beat Nigeria and win the 2023 final (played in 2014).
Captain William Troost-Ekong had put Nigeria ahead seven minutes before the end of a cagey first half when the centre-back rose highest to powerfully head in from nine yards out following a corner.
Franck Kessie nodded in the equaliser in the 62nd minute for Ivory Coast when he was left unmarked at the back post from Adingra’s corner.
After a disastrous run to the final, which included firing the coach and a 4-0 crushing, two defeats in the group stage, the Ivorians, who qualified as one of the third best finishers – scrapping through indeed – clinched a third continental title with a deserved victory.
Their supporters have taken to calling Ivory Coast “les Revenants” — the Zombies.
Why not? For sometimes they really looked like Zombies at the group stages, especially against Equatorial Guinea.
But the host country came back from the dead this tournament — repeatedly. And they did last night at most crucial moment.
On the brink of a humiliating group-stage exit (with some people joking they should be taken to the army barracks for some caning), they sacked Gasset after their final first-round game.
In 2000, Ivory Coast’s national team was detained by military authorities in an army barrack following its elimination from Afcon.
Two days earlier before firing the coach, they had lost 4-0 to minnows Equatorial Guinea. Even the staunch supporters gave up at that stage. Gasset’s replacement Emerse Fae had never managed a senior game before, at any level — yet here he was, thrown into the deep end where everyone thought he would drown.
He exuded raw inexperience, but with it came extraordinary belief. Several results conspired to send Ivory Coast into the knock out stage — before they shocked defending champions Senegal on penalties in the last 16.
At that stage, supporters started to believe again. In football anything can happen. Mozambique scored two goals in the stoppage time to hold Ghana to a 2-2 draw and send them packing home.
Two late goals saw them through in their quarter-final against Mali, first a 90th-minute equaliser, before an improvised flick from Oumar Diakite in the closing seconds of extra time avoided another shootout.
Their 1-0 semi-final win over DRC was their most straightforward of the tournament — but seeing as goalscorer Haller had begun 2023 by entering remission from testicular cancer, it featured its own wider comeback.
And so to Abidjan, the final, and a chance to win their third Afcon title, and first since 2015 and the first in 1992. Ivory Coast beat Ghana on penalties to win the 2015 Afcon after 120 minutes of action produced no goals.
Front runners in the early stages, they took up their accustomed position after Troost-Ekong’s 38th-minute header.
Nigeria, who did not come to the party in the final, had not lost a game in which they took the lead in their last 19 matches — but Kessie’s header brought Ivory Coast back level after 62 minutes.
Haller had returned to the pitch last year after his cancer diagnosis with boots reading “F**k Cancer”.
Now, with that same right foot, he delivered Afcon glory. Ivory Coast, the Zombies, back from the dead to become champions!