Hosts Ivory Coast completed one of Africa Cup of Nations’ most memorable comebacks to be crowned champions of Africa for a third time as Nigeria were beaten 2-1 in Abidjan.
Nigeria captain and former Watford centre-back William Troost-Ekong headed the Super Eagles in front against the run of play at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium (38).
Franck Kessie rose at the far post to meet Simon Adingra’s corner to deservedly level matters (61).
Ivory Coast looked set for an early exit when they lost their final group game 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea but scraped through to the knockout phase before beating Senegal, Mali and DR Congo.
But Sebastien Haller met another Adingra cross to superbly flick home the winner (81) for his most important contribution in an Ivory Coast shirt.
It was a poignant moment for the former West Ham striker, who has battled back from being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2022 and will now go down in history among all Ivorians after their third AFCON triumph.
Nigeria: Nwabali (7); Ajayi (6), Troost-Ekong (8), Bassey (6); Aina (5), Onyeka (7), Iwobi (6), Zaidu (7); Chukwueze (6), Osimhen (5), Lookman (6).
Subs: Yusuf (6), Aribo (n/a), Iheanacho (n/a), Simon (n/a), Moffi (n/a).
Ivory Coast: Y Fofana (6); Aurier (7), Kossounou (7), Ndicka (7), Konan (6); Kessie (8), Seri (7), S Fofana (7); Gradel (7), Haller (8), Adingra (8).
Subs: Singo (6), Diakite (6), I Sangare (n/a), Lazare (n/a), Krasso (n/a).
Man of the match: Sebastien Haller.
An AFCON triumph born from adversity
It is not often you qualify from your group as the fourth of four best third-placed sides, sack your coach and end up with your name on the trophy. But this is the Africa Cup of Nations, a competition that is unrivalled when it comes to drama and the improbable made possible.
It was a triumph born from adversity as the Ivorians scraped out of their group following two defeats before finding their form in the knockout rounds with a never-say-die attitude that led them to the title.
- Nigeria made two alterations from the semi-final against South Africa. Zaidu Sanusi replaced Bright Samuel at wing-back and Samuel Chukwueze came in for Moses Simon on the right wing.
- Ivory Coast also made two switches. The captain Serge Aurier and Odilon Kossounou replaced Wilfried Singo and Willy Boly in defence.
Ivory Coast looked out on their feet when they were trounced 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea. They needed favours from elsewhere. They had to squeeze past the holders Senegal on penalties. Against Mali, they needed a late equaliser and their semi-final victory over DR Congo was by the narrowest of margins.
And yet, in front of a partisan crowd of 60,000, there was a sense of inevitability that this magical journey on home soil would have its fairytale ending. With Haller, the hosts hit their high point.
The home side controlled much of this year’s final as Adingra was denied by a fine save from Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali, before the visitors took the lead with their first effort on target on 38 minutes.
Troost-Ekong headed into the net when Ademola Lookman’s corner was flicked on by Chukwueze and the Nigerian captain won the second ball ahead of Serge Aurier.
The hosts had an excellent chance to equalise early in the second half when the ball fell to Max Gradel in the box but his fierce shot was blocked by Calvin Bassey.
Nwabali had to beat away a superb long-range shot from Adingra but from the resulting corner Ivory Coast equalised when Kessie was left unmarked at the back post and headed into the net.
It was the home side who pushed for the winner and came close when Haller attempted a spectacular overhead kick, but the ball flashed wide of goal.
The tall striker did not have to wait long for his goal though as moments later he steered Adingra’s whipped cross into the net to crown a fantastic story.
Heroic Haller epitomises Ivorian fight
Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds:
Group A proved a debacle as the hosts buckled under the pressure to finish third. It became a case of having nothing left to lose as Ivory Coast dominated Nigeria to drag themselves back from another setback over the line. Nigeria scored from their first corner and their first shot on target, but they were a distant second.
Emerse Fae deserves so much credit in this incredible story for getting his team believing in themselves again.
The Ivorians had to come from behind several times in the tournament and did it again when Haller steered Adingra’s cross into the net, much to the delight of his rookie coach, who had started the tournament as assistant to sacked Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset.
Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July 2022 but beat the disease and has been a crucial player for the Ivorians, though he missed the start of the tournament with an ankle injury, playing his first game in the last-16 win over defending champions Senegal.
His story epitomises the fight in the Ivorian side, who became the first home nation to lift the Cup of Nations since Egypt in 2006. All four of their previous continental finals had finished 0-0, with them winning on penalties in 1992 and 2015, both times against Ghana, and losing the other two.
As he was embraced by Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba on the touchline at the final whistle as his country’s match-winner, it was hard not to feel moved by his own personal journey that had reached its zenith.
Besides their goal, Nigeria did not turn up as star striker Victor Osimhen toiled in the sweltering conditions. A fourth AFCON title slipped through their fingers as the night belonged to Ivory Coast.
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