And it was Sebastien Haller, who returned to competitive football a year ago after beating testicular cancer, that scored the winning goal as the hosts beat Nigeria 2-1 at the Alassane Outtara Olympic Stadium in Ebimpe on Sunday night as the curtain fell on what has been a month of raw passion, incredible goals and high-level drama.
William Troost-Ekong gave Nigeria the lead in the first half but second half goals from Franck Kessie and Haller won the trophy for the hosts.
Nigeria were 1-0 winners when both sides met in the group stage. The Super Eagles, three-time AFCON champions were unbeaten heading into the final, while the Ivorians had lost two matches in the group stage.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
In a tournament that delivered countless big twists, shocks and surprises, the hosts produced the blockbuster script that comes out on top. From being ‘already dead’ after suffering their heaviest AFCON defeat against Equatorial Guinea, to dramatically reaching the final.
The country wallowed in disappointment as the Elephants waited for days before their progress to the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed finishers was confirmed following Morocco’s victory over Zambia.
By this time they had already parted ways with their coach, Jean-Louis Gasset and considering their chaotic circumstances very few gave them a chance against defending champions Senegal in the last-16.
But the Elephants, led by interim coach Emerse Faé, a former player, would stun Senegal 5-4 on penalties to secure a place in the quarter-finals, where they achieved an extra-time comeback victory against Mali despite being a man down, before seeing off DR Congo 1-0 in the semi-finals.
Faé, who played every minute as Ivory Coast finished second at the AFCON in 2006, has now won the tournament as a coach.
Ivory Coast took the initiative from the get go in the final against Nigeria and for the most part of the first half looked the most likely to score.
By the 22nd minute they were leading 5-0 on attempts and a few minutes later got their best chance through the outstanding Simon Adingra.
However, it was Nigeria that took the lead in the 38th minute thanks to captain Troost-Ekong.
Ademola Lookman had sent in a corner from the left, which was headed up in the air by Samuel Chukwueze at the near post. As the ball dropped Troost-Ekong leaped over Serge Aurier, to power a looping header over Yahia Fofana.
The Super Eagles took their 1-0 lead into the break.
Despite being a goal down, the Elephants remained in control in the second half and were rewarded in the 62nd minute when an unmarked Franck Kessie’s downward header off Adingra’s deep corner flew past Stanley Nwabali and into the net for the equaliser.
The stadium erupted in cheers. Interestingly, with that goal, Kessie became the first Ivorian to score in an AFCON final. The Elephants’ four previous final appearances were settled with penalties after ending goalless.
Then in the 81st minute, the hosts would take the lead after Adingra sent in a superb cross from the left towards the near post to find Sebastien Haller who delivered a fine finish. An incredible story indeed for Haller who also scored the winning goal in their semi-final.
Nigeria’s performance left much to be desired and after 90+5 minutes, the sea of orange in the stadium burst into celebration.
The Bafana Bafana of South Africa secured the third-place finish of Ivory Coast 2023, thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of Captain Ronwen Williams. Following a goalless 90 minutes, Williams saved two penalties to help his team beat the Democratic Republic of Congo 6-5 on penalties in the third place play-off on Saturday night (Feb. 10).
This is the second time that 1996 champions South Africa are finishing third at the AFCON and also the second time that DR Congo, winners in 1968 and 1974, have settled for fourth place in the continental tournament.
Hugo Broos, the coach of South Africa, is not a fan of the third-place play-off – “if you ask my advice, this game should not be played”, but he is proud of the mentality his players showed in the match.
“I said after Nigeria match that I was proud of this team, and I think today people can see why I say I am proud of this team. We were not fresh but when you see the mentality in that group, it is impressive,” he said.
“The boys did very well. They showed great mentality. They tried to do what I asked, and I understand that it was difficult. It shows that if we have problems, we can count on those who are on the bench.
“I was satisfied with players on the pitch, but I was even more satisfied with those on the bench. They were encouraging them and pushing them. From this, you know that you have 23 guys who want one thing and that is winning.”
AFCON Ivory Coast 2023 winners list:
Winners: Ivory Coast
Third: South Africa
Fourth: Democratic Republic of Congo
Best Player of the Tournament: William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria)
Golden Boot: Emilio Nsue Lopez
Best Goalkeeper: Ronwen Williams (South Africa)
Fair-Play Team: South Africa
Credit: AIPS Media