From the ruins of a chaotic 48 hours that saw them sack their coach, attempt to loan a coach from France to securing a dramatically late spot via the best third-placed rule, Ivory Coast rose to write an unbelievable story that not even the most creative football writer would have imagined.
Escaping the grips of a disheartening elimination that threatened to mark them as the weakest Ivorian team in recent history, the players from Ivory Coast rose to the occasion, crafting one of the most inspiring fairytales in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations.
The sight of the Moroccan flag on one of the giant screens at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium after the final triggered a raucous noise and loud applause from the multitudes of Ivorians who stayed behind to take in every moment of their fairytale ride to their third Africa Cup of Nations title. They did so because they knew they owed Morocco a great deal of gratitude for their success and that fact was not lost on the players as they celebrated in the mixed zone section with a giant Moroccan flag.
By the early hours of January 24, 2024, the whole of Ivory Coast was in a state of dystopia and apprehension as they stood on the brink of a mortifying exit from a tournament they had been billed to ‘host and win’.
Heads were already rolling as a football-crazy nation bayed for blood. The Ivorian federation had offered the head of coach Jean-Louis Gasset to the blood-thirsty populace but they were not satisfied. They wanted more as they shuddered to come to terms with the fact that all their excitement and jamboree of hosting the rest of Africa could be cut short after just three matches.
But in the chaos and gloom, there was a pale light of hope. It was out of their hands as it solely depended on Morocco who had already booked a slot in the knockout stage, beating Zambia to give them a chance via the best third-place rule. Hakim Ziyech, a player not unknown to most Ivorian fans as he previously played for their darling club Chelsea scored the winner that gave Ivory Coast a lifeline.
Having been handed a second chance at life, Ivory Coast, under the tutelage of former midfielder, Emerse Fae who only got the job by virtue of the French Football Federation’s decision to deny Ivory Coast’s request for the loaning of Herve Renard, rallied together and scripted a story that will make for a captivating and best-selling documentary.
Driven by a solid defensive structure which was anchored on the introduction of the experienced Jean Michaël Seri as the defensive midfielder, sheer determination and hunger and the granting of increasing role to the immensely talented Simon Adingra, Ivory Coast rose from the dead and won their third title.
Against the much-fancied Senegal in the round of 16 stage, the odds were against them but they staged a late comeback to send the game to a shootout and won 5-4.
Despite a win over favorites Senegal, the jury was still out on the Ivorians; but two late goals against Mali in the quarter-final ensured that they continued their dramatic ride with a 2-1 victory.
There came the DR Congo who aside from punching above their weights in the tournament, played some of the best attacking football. But in that game, Ivory Coast wrote another emotional chapter of their compelling story with Sebastian Haller, a player who had beaten testicular cancer after six months, volleying home a ball that turned out to be the winner.
Nigeria had overcome South Africa in the other semi-final match setting up a dream final for followers of African footballers. The Super Eagles who had been peerless all tournament with their solid defensive structure and a potent attack led by reigning African football of the year, Victor Osimhen were understandably bookmakers’ favorite to win their fourth AFCON which would have put them at par with Ghana.
The Super Eagles drew first blood with a thumping header from tournament’s golden ball winner, William Troost-Ekong but Ivory Coast who had realized that Simon Adingra provided their best attacking outlet made him the cog of their attack and set him up with Nigerian fullback Ola Aina. Unfazed by the experience and reputation of Aina, Adingra rinsed him completely with his pace and trickery, setting up the two Ivorian goals.
The first was a sweet corner which was thumped into the net by Franck Kessie before Sebastian Haller who was all teary after the game fired home from close range with the perfect poacher’s finish to score in the game that sent the streets of Abidjan into absolute pandemonium and ensured that the ‘host and win’ dream was achieved.
When the story of how Zambia went back to Gabon, 19 years after losing most of their players to a horrific plane crash in Libreville to win the 2012 AFCON is told and when the story of how Ghana won the 1982 AFCON despite no pre-tournament training is told by connoisseurs of African football as some of the most standout stories in AFCON history, the Ivorian team will get mention as the team that survived shame, pain and disgrace to write one of the best from ‘zero to hero’ sporting stories of all time. EK/BB