It was quite a fairy tale and a transition from lucky survivors to eventual winners for Ivory Coast on Sunday as they were crowned winners of the 2023 TotalEnergies CAF African Cup of Nations.
The crown couldn’t have fit any other nation better than the Ivorians who, at an early part of the tournament, almost lost their footing at the expense of progressing into the round of 16.
How else could you celebrate your victory over arch-rivals than in the presence of your proud ‘orange-coloured’ supporters on home soil?
Ivory Coast – the host nation for this year’s tournament, was placed in group A alongside Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.
The Ivorians started on a good note as they earned a 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau.
The host later lost their last two group-stage matches with a 1-0 loss to Nigerian Super Eagles and a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea – their heaviest-ever home defeat.
It was shocking! However, the Ivorian Football Association never deterred as was evident when team Coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sent packing after the second straight loss.
The Ivorains qualified for the round of 16 as the best loser with three points.
Emerse Fae, a former player and assistant to Gasset was appointed as manager for the team.
From this point, the team became intoxicated with victory and the urge to lift the tournament which its government and ardent supporters had spent so much resources on.
Such resources couldn’t go to the bins, they probably thought.
Fae guided The Elephants to a stunning, unexpected 5-4 penalty shootout win over defending champions, Senegal in the round of 16, following a 1-1 full-time draw; thanks to a late Franck Kessie equaliser from the spot.
The win was big for the host nation who had consecutively lost two significant matches in the tourney.
While forging with the same motivation, Ivory Coast went ahead to register another win in the quarterfinals.
Coming from behind, and extending their hold and hope into extra time before Oumar Diakite’s winning right-footed shot from close range, Ivory Coast beat Mali 2-1 to guarantee their place in the semi-finals.
Fae kept the team motivated and hungry for success for a country that last won the AFCON in 2015.
Ivorian striker, Sebastien Haller, 29, was at the rescue as he struck the lone goal against DR Congo to give the team the golden chance to reach the finals of the tourney.
While all roads led to the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan on Sunday, with an official attendance of over 57,000, the Ivorians were determined to get their much-awaited revenge against Nigeria who beat them in the group stage.
Both teams engaged in a highly intense match that witnessed a total of 23 shot attempts.
While the Ivorian team had most of the ball to themselves, the Super Eagles broke the deadlock seven minutes before halftime with a towering header from captain William Troost-Ekong.
The Nigerian supporters raised their voices with elation while the Ivorians continued to hold on to faith.
Right in the 62nd minute, Kessie, like Troost-Ekong, powered the ball into the Nigerian goal to bring the game to a leveller.
With nine minutes to the end of the full-time play, Haller once again stole the show as his simple touch on the ball went past Stanley Nwabali into the goalpost.
The Ivorians clinched their third AFCON title to come level with Nigeria, and becoming the first host country to win the tournament since Egypt in 2006.
Fae, who turned 40 on the day he became coach, said, “All our games were difficult. We kept having to come from behind and we really had to draw on all our physical and mental reserves.
“I took over when we were not even sure of getting out of our group. It was a strange birthday but thankfully we got a second chance and grabbed it.”
“I can’t properly express my joy. It is massive. I dreamed of winning the AFCON as a player and didn’t manage it,” added Fae, who played in the side beaten by Egypt in the 2006 final.
The post How ‘lucky’ Ivory Coast emerged AFCON winner against all odds first appeared on Nigeria Newspapers Online.