Ivory Coast: the incredible story the champions of Africa

Estimated read time 8 min read

When the Mauritania centre referee Dahane Beida blew his whistle to bring proceedings to an end after over 100 minutes of football, there was just one common asset among the majority of spectators in the stadium. Of course, it was in the famous Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe also known as Alassane Ouattara Stadium. Ivory Coast was crowned the champions of Africa at the 34th edition of the competition.

In the 60,000-seater magnificent venue were 57,094 people all with one particular goal; to see the winner. Seated in that crowd were the President of Ivory Coast Alassane Ouattara and his wife, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and CAF President Patrice Motsepe. However, the majority of the people were in the famous orange colour that turned on the heroes of the night just a couple of weeks ago; the Ivorian supporters.

Hosting the tournament for the second time in the competition’s history. The story was taking a trajectory familiar to Ivorians who had witnessed the 1984 edition. Housed in Group A in that tournament with Egypt, Cameroon and Togo, the Elephants dropped out in the group stages. They started that tournament with an assertive 3-0 victory over Togo but miserable 1-2 and 0-2 defeats to Egypt and Cameroon sealed their fate as they exited with just two points.

Ivory Coast 1984 looked destined to repeat in 2023

Ivorians stared at an early bath just like it happened 40 years ago. The pattern was similar though not exact but a suprematist 2-0 execution against Guinea-Bissau marked for a statement of intent. That soon flattered the passion, drive and harmony of the entire nation when they miserably succumbed to Nigeria who themselves also had a faltering start to the tournament and needed revitalization. A lone goal defeat left them hanging but knowing a win on the last day will nonetheless guarantee passage to the next stage.

However, it was a statement disaster class when they met Equatorial Guinea on the last day. In front of 42,550, mostly Ivorians, the Elephants could not hold their weight against the Nzalang Nacional as they crushed and crumbled under pressure. It was a class act from the West African football minnows that spined fear in each Ivorian supporter inside and outside of the stadium. Former Chelsea star and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba was captured by cameras broken beyond fixing. It was almost over for Ivory Coast and everything was out of their power. They now needed the failing and success of others to advance. It took the magical intervention of Ghana in Group B to keep the hosts’ hope alive after the Black Stars miserably failed to hold on to a win despite leading with only extra time to play.

But that was not all, it only took one chance forward and one threat away but there was still more especially in Group F where both Tanzania and Zambia had chances to advance. However, Tanzania settled for a draw with eventual semi-finalist DR Congo while Morocco proved too strong for Zambia. By then the Ivorian authorities had acted by firing Jean-Louis Gasset despite still holding the hopes for a miraculous qualification.

Emerse Fae called to service

In came Emerse Fae, a former Ivory Coast international who played for the team between 2005 and 2011, collecting 41 caps. He was assistant to the veteran French coach for 18 months and now was tasked with leading the team on an interim basis if they do qualify for the knockout phase.

Like a Weeping Willow, life gutted out of the team, spreading its wings across the length and breadth of the country, rejuvenating passion and filling up the venue during matches. And like the Biblical mustard seed, the faith of the Ivorian authorities and fans in Emerse Fae pushed the team to a new beginning.

However, their also-pull-through way of qualification ensured they were paired against defending champions and favourites Senegal in the Round of 16. If their qualification had done anything but lift their spirits, their next opponent had already diffracted and dispersed that ray of hope. The 20,000-seater Charles Konan Banny Stadium in Yamoussoukro was at near full capacity at 19,948 for the match. Of course, the majority of those in the stadium were Ivorians leaving the team no option but to make up for their group-stage disaster.

But an early Habib Diallo goal looked destined to finally confirm the Ivorians’ final dance in African football’s grandest festival. However, Al-Ahli midfielder Franck Kessié had a last say. The 27-year-old pulled the Elephants back from the penalty spot with four minutes of regulation time to play to force extra time. After an excruciatingly tensed 120 minutes of football with nothing to separate the two sides, penalties were needed to decide the winner.

The former AC Milan and Barcelona man again was the hero after he scored the fifth and winning spot-kick. Moussa Niakhaté had missed the third kick for Senegal.

Mali was the next obstacle in their way and Nene Dorgeles’ 71st minute goal seemed to have done The Eagles until 22-year-old Brighton & Hove Albion winger Simon Adingra got the saving goal on the stroke of 90 minutes. The goal ensured the Ivorians played extra time for the second consecutive match. But this time around they didn’t need penalties as 20-year-old Oumar Diakité got the winner in added time of extra time. He received a yellow for his reactions to the goal resulting in a red card for him; the second Ivorian to be marched off during the match. Odilon Kossounou already was sent off in the first half leaving the Ivorians with 10 men for the rest of the game.

Sebastian Haller finally joins the party

Now with the full support of the country and beyond behind them, the Elephants marched on as they chased The Leopards out thanks to Sebastian Haller’s 65th-minute goal. But what lay ahead was more than they had faced; Nigeria. The Ivorians already fell to the three-time AFCON champions in Group A and will have to do more to overcome them this time around.

Sebastian Haller (centre) celebrates his goal with Simon Adingra (right) and Oumar Diakite. Ivory Coast beat Nigeria 1-2 in the final
Sebastian Haller (centre) celebrates his goal with Simon Adingra (right) and Oumar Diakite. Photo: Getty

But here is a team that was not bereft of inspiration and their mentality too was up there and capable of withstanding whatever came their way. Haller who scored the winner against both DR Congo in the semi-final and Nigeria in the final said, “It is the power of the group and the mindset that put us through”. And he was right. The team had gone through a phase of rejection, abuse and shame after two disastrous defeats that left them kissing exit deeper than qualification.

But the Borussia Dortmund forward was quick to mention their sufferings too. He said after the final, “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.” If any team was more determined to make amends and get back their footing, it was the Ivorian team led by Fae. South Africa did have a similar trajectory but theirs was not as dire as the hosts.

Super Eagles sent an early scare to the Elephants

Nigeria showed they were not done yet when they took the lead in the final. William Troost-Ekong shot his Super Eagles side into the lead after 38 minutes of action. It looked like the Elephants had run out of gas and Fae was finally out of ideas. But they came out from the break more aggressive and intent than the favourites. The reward came just two minutes past the hour mark when Franck Kessie headed home from a corner. From then on, the Over 50,000 seated in the arena knew it was possible this could go either way.

Thoughts were that it would end with spot kicks to decide the winner, a routine the Ivorians themselves may be hopeful of given they won both their previous championships via marathon shootouts. The difference was this time it was against Nigeria, not Ghana with whom they find their magic 12 yards out.

A special hero who won an even bigger battle barely a year ago decided to unfold his magic wand. Sebastian Haller, the man who beat cancer just a year ago beat the odds for Ivory Coast against Nigeria. An 81st-minute strike put the Elephants in front for the first time in the night. A thematic wave of celebration erupted inside the stadium. Then followed nine tensed minutes in regulation time and seven additional minutes to confirm that it was Number 3 for Ivory Coast.

The victory put them level on the number of success with their West African counterparts that night. It was a number 3 for Ivory Coast. A vintage one. One forced through resilience, grit and sacrifice. When this team is remembered, it will be more for their grit and strong mentality than their victory in the final. Whatever it is, their glory days live on…

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