Less than 12 months after his triumphant return to soccer following his successful battle against testicular cancer, Sébastien Haller showcased his remarkable skills by scoring the decisive goal. Ivory Coast emerged victorious with a 2-1 win over Nigeria, securing the highly coveted Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) championship on Sunday.
The striker’s remarkable comeback was sealed with a goal in the 81st minute, igniting euphoric celebrations among the home crowd at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium.
Haller experienced a deeply moving moment when he received his cancer diagnosis in 2022, shortly after joining the German club Borussia Dortmund.
Following two operations and four rounds of chemotherapy, the 29-year-old made an incredible recovery and made his comeback to the sport in February 2023. The highlight of his return came on World Cancer Day last season, when he scored his first competitive goal for Dortmund, marking a truly momentous occasion.
His journey perfectly represented his country’s campaign at this year’s AFCON, which began in a disastrous manner. Following a victorious start in their opening group game, Les Éléphants unfortunately experienced two subsequent losses, one of which was a disappointing 4-0 defeat against Equatorial Guinea.
Ivory Coast seemed to be having a disappointing tournament and made the decision to dismiss their manager, Jean-Louis Gasset, believing that the team had been eliminated in the group stage. However, thanks to a series of unexpected outcomes in other matches, the host nation managed to secure a spot in the knockout stages as one of the top four third-placed teams.
After a thorough search, Emerse Faé was selected as the caretaker manager for the team. This was his first time taking on a managerial role at the senior level, after other candidates didn’t work out.
Faé faced a challenging opponent in the defending champion, Senegal, during the round of 16. The team was on the verge of elimination, but a late equalizer saved the host nation before they ultimately won a thrilling penalty shootout.
In the quarterfinals against Mali, Ivory Coast managed to secure another impressive victory, scoring a crucial equalizer in the final minutes and ultimately clinching the win in extra-time.
Haller, who had been unable to participate in the group stages due to injury, made a triumphant comeback for the knockout stages and seized the opportunity to score the winning goal in the semifinal against Congo.
The team’s remarkable talent for making comebacks had earned them the nickname ‘Zombie Elephants’, and Ivory Coast once again lived up to its reputation in the final.
Following Nigeria’s early lead courtesy of William Troost-Ekong’s header, the host nation managed to make a comeback in the match.
Ivory Coast managed to equalize just after the hour mark, with the support of legendary striker Didier Drogba cheering them on from the stands. Franck Kessié was the one who scored the crucial goal.
In a thrilling turn of events, Haller seized the opportunity to gracefully redirect Simon Adingra’s cross into the net, securing a remarkable comeback for both himself and the team with a mere nine minutes remaining in regulation time.
The strength of our collective and our positive mindset carried us through. There were some difficult moments, but we managed to overcome them, even though it was quite challenging,” Ivory Coast’s Adingra stated after the game, according to Reuters.
We were able to overcome challenges and achieve what we did today thanks to our strong determination.
There were other soccer legends present at the event, besides Drogba. Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, and Gianni Infantino, the FIFA President, were also in attendance as Ivory Coast secured its third AFCON title.