Sebastien Haller on Sunday scored a dramatic late winner as hosts Ivory Coast fought back to beat Victor Osimhen’s Nigeria 2-1 in the Africa Cup of Nations final and complete the most remarkable of major tournament turnarounds by claiming their third continental title.
Nigeria looked set to repeat their 1-0 victory over Ivory Coast at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium during the group stage when captain William Troost-Ekong — who had netted a penalty to decide that first meeting — rose to head in the opener late in the first half.
However, Franck Kessie equalized just after the hour mark and Haller turned in Simon Adingra’s cross in the 81st minute to spark wild celebrations among the sea of orange in the Abidjan stands.
Ivory Coast’s success sees them add this year’s title to those claimed in 1992 and 2015, while the win also sees them to join Nigeria on three Cup of Nations triumphs overall.
Spearheaded by reigning African Player of the Year Osimhen, Nigeria had looked the most formidable team in the competition over the past month, but Ivory Coast’s sense of destiny was simply too overpowering, as they became the first host nation to win the tournament since 2006.
Didier Drogba captained the Elephants team that lost on penalties to Egypt in Cairo in that final 18 years ago, while this time he was among the spectators to witness a stunning victory for his nation.
“It is greater than a fairy tale,” said Ivory Coast coach Emerse Fae, who took over a stricken team mid-tournament. “I am struggling to take it all in. When I think about all we have been through, the difficult moments, moments when we were behind, when we came back in the last minute of games. We are miracle survivors.”
It is an incredible achievement for a side that was on the brink of elimination in the group stage after losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea on Jan. 22.
That was their heaviest ever home defeat and Ivory Coast then parted company with coach Jean-Louis Gasset, replacing him with Fae, a teammate of Drogba’s in 2006.
They then began a remarkable turnaround which saw them oust holders Senegal on penalties, beat Mali with a last-gasp goal in extra-time and edge the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a Haller goal in the semi-finals.
Their supporters packed out the stadium to its 60,000 capacity, with many fans having to watch from vantage points on stairways.
Anyone wanting to dampen the excitement levels might have pointed out that Cup of Nations finals tend to be low-scoring affairs.
There were just 10 goals scored in the previous 11 finals, five of which were decided on penalties after a 0-0 stalemate.
Indeed, Ivory Coast’s four previous final appearances had all ended goalless before going to penalties, two of which they had won.
It looked set to be another nervy, low-scoring affair with chances few and far between early on.
However, the hosts then had a great chance on 34 minutes when Kessie found Adingra on the left and his shot was turned away by Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali.
That proved crucial as Nigeria went ahead just four minutes later when Ademola Lookman’s corner from the left was touched on and Troost-Ekong headed in from the edge of the six-yard box.
Earlier in the tournament Ivory Coast would have crumbled in such a scenario, but they deserve great credit for regrouping and throwing everything at Nigeria.
Max-Alain Gradel’s shot was blocked in front of the goal-line by Calvin Bassey five minutes after the restart, before Nwabali turned an Odilon Kossounou long-range pile-driver around the post on 62 minutes. They drew level from the corner which followed that, as Kessie appeared at the back post to head into the net.
It seemed inevitable that a second Ivory Coast goal would follow and it duly did with nine minutes left as Haller got his studs to Adingra’s cross and diverted the ball into the far corner.
Behind for the first time since their opening match, Nigeria could not react and Ivory Coast held on.
“Ivory Coast were better than us today,” Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro said. “I am sad, my team is sad, but for me they did the maximum, each one. Sometimes you want to do something, but you cannot do it.”
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