Ivory Coast’s success at the Africa Cup of Nations was all about taking advantage of second chances, but after coming from behind to beat Nigeria in Sunday’s final, relief was the overwhelming emotion, winning coach Emerse Fae said.
The host nation completed a fairy tale recovery after coming close to early elimination, fighting their way back from a goal down in three of their four knockout matches before securing the trophy with a 2-1 success in Sunday’s final at Alassane Ouattara Stadium.
Fae started the tournament as assistant to Jean-Louis Gasset but took over when the veteran French coach was fired after they scraped through the first phase as the last lucky loser.
“It’s difficult for me to realise this all right now,” Fae said after the final, in which the Ivorians were down at halftime but fought back to score twice in the last half hour to secure victory.
“When I think about all we went through, the hard times when we almost went out, and the matches where we came back in the last minutes, we have created some miracles.
“But it is also because we kept fighting to the last minute when the odds were against us,” he said. “We feel relief firstly after all the difficulties. We were close to humiliation but when we had a second chance, we were determined not to waste it.”
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The Ivorians always believed they were capable of fighting back in the final, he added.
“At halftime in the change room we just talked with the players about keeping fighting and putting pressure on Nigeria,” he said.
“We had started the game well and had good control, setting up opportunities but we lost focus and Nigeria scored against the run of play. But we always believed we could come back because Nigeria looked exhausted.”
Fae (40) also hailed Gasset’s input, even if the coach went back to France after their humiliating 4-0 loss to tiny Equatorial Guinea in the group stage, which was the worst defeat yet suffered by a Cup of Nations host.
“He should also be associated with this win,” Fae said.
The Ivorians are the first hosts to win the Cup of Nations in the last eight editions since Egypt’s home success in 2006.
Haller of fame
Sebastien Haller scored the winning goal nine minutes from the end. It was a triumph born from adversity as the Ivorians had 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.
William Troost-Ekong’s header gave Nigeria a first-half lead as he rose to meet Samuel Chukwueze’s flick-on from a corner, but Franck Kessie equalised just past the hour-mark after being left unmarked at the back post from a set-piece.
The Ivorians had to come from behind several times in the tournament and did it again when Haller steered Simon Adingra’s cross into the net.
“It’s the power of the group and the mindset that put us through. We had some challenging moments but we rescued ourselves, although it wasn’t easy. The mental fortitude saw us restore our chances and do what we achieved today,” said Ivorian man of the match Adingra.
Borussia Dortmund forward 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.
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.
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.
“Our team had a fantastic tournament but today Ivory Coast was better,” Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro said. “Our team didn’t show our level. That’s the truth. It was not the same job as we did in the previous rounds.” Reuters/DM