We examine why Ivory Coast’s defeat of Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations may have just marked the greatest AFCON yet.
As Ivory Coast came from a goal down to beat Nigeria and complete the most remarkable of sporting redemptions, it also encapsulated not only their own journey but that of a tournament, a continent and a man.
The 2-1 victory in the final for the Elephants was a huge achievement against the Super Eagles, who were heavy favourites and led by the African Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen.
Yet this was a tournament that sparked into life and never let go of a flame that burned with the dreams in every corner of Africa, producing upsets and stories that will live long in the memory of all and not just the Elephants.
To be capped by a winning goal scored by Sebastian Haller, diagnosed with testicular cancer in July 2022, was poetic to a wider audience, yet it is impossible to put into words what it must mean to the player and his family. As the sport’s governing body on the continent, the Confederation of African Football, dubbed it: “Haller’s story is one for the ages.”
It all began with Ivory Coast’s capitulation in Group A. It was the first major story of the tournament and made Sunday’s turnaround against Nigeria all the more spectacular.
The hosts, far from one of the favourites, opened the tournament with a solid 2-0 win against Guinea, it laid a marker that perhaps there was hope for the two-time champions among their more celebrated rivals.
Indeed it was the Super Eagles who entered the second group-stage match against the Elephants under some pressure. Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong settled the match, and Nigerian nerves following their point in the first match, from the spot.
The Ivorians’ implosion in the 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea in Abidjan in the final group match was the moment that confirmed a special AFCON was unfolding.
Coach Jean-Louis Gasset was removed from his post despite the possibility that the team might still progress. An urgent call was made to the former Ivorian coach and two-time AFCON winner as manager, Herve Renard. The French Football Federation rejected the request for a loan from their women’s national team boss.
Gasset’s assistant and former Ivorian international, Emerse Fae, who was forced to retire by illness as a player at 28, was handed the reins. Qualifying narrowly as one of the four best third-place finishers, the Elephants marched to a meeting with the defending champions, Senegal.
Franck Kessie’s 86th-minute spot kick took the tie to extra time and then penalties but their comeback against Mali in the quarterfinal was an even closer call. A 90th-minute equaliser and an injury-time winner in extra time led to belief that a stampede was forming. The Congolese players’ seemed tired in the semifinal, as it would appear were Nigeria’s in the final, perhaps under the weight of pressure.
For Fae, a door had been blown off its hinges for his coaching ambitions after his enforced career switch in his 20s.
For the scorer of the winning goal, a moment for the world to cherish and celebrate with him as Haller found both the net and the hearts of millions after his recovery from a diagnosis that was delivered only 18 months ago.
For a team, a redemption from a group stage to forget that saw the replica jerseys piled high in bins across the country but now worn with pride once more. The comeback of comebacks was complete.
Where were the Nigerians?
Nigeria, with the continent’s largest population, entered this edition as a clear contender. They boasted the strongest squad with depth in every position and were led by one of the world’s most prized talents in attack, Osimhen – crowned Africa Footballer of the Year in December.
Defence was clearly to be their best form of attack as Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro set up a five-man backline, with an onus on Osimhen to press from the front. A goal in the opening game from the Napoli striker rescued a point against Equatorial Guinea but, by the time the knockout rounds were progressing, that solitary strike was hanging over the 25-year-old forcing Peseiro to celebrate his performances based on Osimhen’s work rate for the team.
Just two goals were conceded in six games before the final, and once Troost-Ekong gave Nigeria a half-time lead after a nervy first 45 minutes, it appeared the Elephants were likely to face some task to trample the Super Eagles’ backline. As they had done throughout the first half, stamp all over it they did.
The build-up of pressure on the backline was too much for Nigeria, who registered just one shot on target. Osimhen, the leading scorer in Serie A last year as Napoli secured their first Italian title since 1990, was an isolated figure in attack.
Starved of opportunity by a structure that was focused on shutting out the opponent. “We should’ve pressed higher, but we didn’t. We conceded a goal and that’s where things went wrong,” reflected Nigeria defender Kenneth Omeruo in a conversation with Al Jazeera.
Nigeria were set, they had the squad, the stars and the plan but things fell apart. It was not quite something from a Chinua Achebe novel for Osimhen and the Nigerians, the striker and the team will go on. With AFCON taking place every two years, the nation of 213.4 million will target that elusive fourth title in Morocco in 2025.
The famous five disappear in a flash
When Senegal, Ghana, Morocco, Cameroon and Tunisia qualified for Qatar 2022, they created history as the most teams from Africa to appear in a World Cup.
When Morocco reached the quarterfinals, they became only the fourth nation from the continent to reach that stage.
When they reached the semifinal they created African history, and the continent and the world were taking note.
So in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations.
A mighty array of talent with wounded Super Eagles determined to make up for the World Cup playoff heartbreak at the hands of the Ghanaians. Indeed it was Ghana who suffered the first shock of the tournament, losing to Cape Verde, but their blushes were spared when 2004 champions Tunisia were beaten by Namibia.
Two African giants fell at the group stage. They were not among the favourites and it was a welcome story of one back for the underdogs.
By the end of the round of 16, all five 2022 World Cup qualifiers were felled and something greater was that just an upset was unfolding. Where some of Africa’s biggest teams has battled to make a mark on the global stage for the continent for so many years, the smaller nations are now emerging to challenge their dominance in Africa.
The quarterfinals were made up of four teams yet to lift an AFCON title in Cape Verde, Mali, Angola and Guinea. Furthermore, there were four teams in the last 16 which were yet to hold aloft the trophy. Two-time winners DR Congo had refound former glories and defeated the record seven-time winners Egypt. South Africa, with their one victory in 1996, overcame Morocco.
No new winners were added to the list of AFCON champions in the end, but Ivory Coast’s revival, with their comeback tales, wrote the defining chapter in undoubtedly AFCON’s greatest story ever told.