It was a hot, humid night for 30 million Ivorians, and Abidjan’s pitch-black sky seemed to be watching over its children, ready for the final confrontation. In a blazing hot Alassane-Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé on Sunday, February 11, Côte d’Ivoire overpowered Nigeria 2-1 in the final duel of « their » Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). For the third time in their history, the Elephants won the continent’s most prestigious title. And the fact that this third victory took place on their home turf was as unexpected as it was unthinkable.
« It was meant to be, » fans were chanting. It’s easy to play the prophet once the hard-fought victory is won, but it is hard to imagine anyone really believed this triumph was inevitable, given the Ivorians’ unreal progress through the tournament?
Looking back, a 2-0 win over Guinea Bissau was followed by a defeat by Nigeria (0-1), and a thrashing by Equatorial Guinea (0-4), leaving the Elephants on the brink of elimination. The players were in tears, mocked by their own supporters, and coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked with only a slim chance of advancing to the round of 16. He was replaced by assistant Emerse Faé, who was appointed interim coach. Finally, to add further confusion, the Ivorian federation tried, without success, to recruit French coach Hervé Renard, who had won the 2015 African Cup of Nations with the Elephants. « We were close to a nightmare, » said star striker Sébastien Haller.
Faé pulled his team back from the brink, keeping them from falling into the abyss with the favorites eliminated in the group stages (Algeria, Ghana, Tunisia). In the end, they were saved by Morocco’s victory over Zambia (0-1). After that, the Ivorians have been wearing Atlas Lions’ jerseys to thank them.
‘Last hammer blow’
The « miracle workers, » as their coach called them, pulled off one feat after another. They followed their victory over defending champions Senegal in the round of 16 (1-1, 4-5 on penalties), with one against Mali in the quarter-finals (1-2) – despite being reduced to 10 men – and then against the Republic of Congo (1-0) in the semi-finals. Tactical changes paid off, and the return from injury of Haller and Simon Adingra helped them. And to think that Gasset had hesitated to select them because of their form.
In the early afternoon on Sunday, fans began to fill the stands, under a blazing sun. « We must complete the miracle, » one of them declared. The Ivorian press called for « one last hammer blow, » a reference to the hit « Coup du marteau » (Hammer blow) by Tam Sir, which has become the other national anthem.
The Elephants were against the Super Eagles, who had defeated them in the group stage. But Nigeria was facing a different Ivorian team, regenerated and confident, whose trials in this tournament seemed to have made them indestructible. « We’ve come a long way, and we know we’ve got a second chance. It’s our responsibility not to waste it, » commented Haller, who said he expected « a physically demanding match. »
Going into the final, Nigerian coach José Peseiro believed that there were « no favorites ». Center-forward Ahmed Musa said he had « no fear » against the Elephants, even if they seemed to have luck on their side. Nigeria was never going to be an easy opponent. Giants of African football, the Eagles were playing in their eighth final (they have already won three). Known for being a land of strikers, Nigeria has proved it can set up a solid defense with its five-man backline (the best of the tournament, with only two goals conceded). « It’s up to us to cause them problems by stretching their lines and creating space. It’s up to us to use their weaknesses to create chances, » said Haller. The Super Eagles could count on the titanic impact of Victor Osimhen. Recently voted Best African Player 2023, the masked striker was determined to give his all to conquer the fourth title that had eluded this nation since 2013.
A transformed team
6 pm. The limousine of the Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, arrived near the pitch of a stadium that bears his name. Cheered on, he greeted the crowd, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Patrice Motsepe, head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). Ouattara had promised to organize « the most beautiful AFCON in history, » the only thing that was missing was victory.
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6:54 pm. The ceremony began and so did the first thrills, when Ivorian reggae legend Alpha Blondy took to the field. The arena was plunged into darkness, illuminated by thousands of telephones, and the crowd sang along with Cocody Rock. Twenty minutes later, the stadium was full – something that had never happened since the start of the tournament – to welcome the two teams for their warm-up. Part of the country had poured into the stands, united under a single color – orange.
8 pm. Kick off. This was a very different team than the group stages. Serious, diligent, disciplined, the Elephants imposed their tempo, to the insane rhythm of the fans’ chants and drums. In the 7th minute, on a cross from Franck Kessié, Haller was close to deflecting the ball into the net. A few breaths later, Adingra wove his way Neymar-style into the opposing box, but his shot went over. An orange storm descended on Nigeria, with corners, crosses, free-kicks. Max-Alain Gradel, 36, tries an up-and-under, which ends in the outside netting. The Ivorians were smothering the Nigerians, who were, for now, refusing to engage.
34th minute. On a pass from Kessié (again), Adingra (again) shifted and hit a sublime shot, well deflected by the keeper. Nigeria was feeling the heat, and the 30°C with 97% humidity had nothing to do with it. A moment of breeze, from a corner taken by Ademola Lookman, Nigerian defender William Troost-Ekong beat Serge Aurier to head home (number 38) against the run of the game. Osimhen doesn’t believe it any more than the crowd does. The Elephants continue their advance in search of an equalizer or yet another miracle.
Half-time. Although trailing, Côte d’Ivoire was confidently dominating (65% possession). They continued to create marvelous combinations: outmaneuvering, pace, and on Adingra’s pass, the striker crossed. The shot was deflected, but Gradel, alone, recovered the ball, attempted a shot that a Super Eagles’ foot blocked (50th minute). Côte d’Ivoire missed too many chances. A few minutes later, from 20 yards out, Kossounou took a powerful shot, but the ball was deflected for a corner. A miracle? From this set-piece, Kessié, the man they wanted to leave on the bench, equalized with a blazing header (62nd minute).
What could happen next for the Elephants? Untouchable. Unbeatable. The atmosphere had gone insane. The hopes of the entire country were reverberating in the fans’ chants. Who could forget how quiet it was during the opening match? But that was last month, an eternity ago.
The Elephants continued to add the pressure. Haller came close to scoring the goal of the tournament, his overhead kick not far from the right-hand post. For the story to be sublime, a player adored by his country, recovering from cancer, had to be the one to give the final hammer blow. From Adingra’s cross, Haller subtly flicked the ball into the net (82nd minute). The crowd went wild. The party had started. The third title was within reach.
At the final whistle, the stadium erupted in collective euphoria. Players and spectators were in a frenzy. Every face was lit up in a giant smile, every cheek was covered in tears of joy. After 1992 and 2015, Côte d’Ivoire had won its third title, at home. It was the first time this has happened since Egypt in 2006. Humiliated and then resurrected, the Elephants performed miracles and became feared. Their fans instantly declared, « Tomorrow, Monday, is a holiday. »