Ivory Coast and star striker Haller toughened by ‘facing the nightmare’
For Ivory Coast and their star striker and poster boy, Sébastien Haller, Sunday's Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final against regional rivals Nigeria at Stade Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan (10pm SA time) will represent something of a second chance.
Just over a year ago, Haller was diagnosed with cancer. In this Afcon his country somehow made it to the final despite having been on the brink of an embarrassing elimination in the group stages.
The Elephants only managed to progress to the knockout stages as one of the four best third-placed finishers but went through the stages near flawlessly, eliminating defending champions Senegal, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo. They might not have dominated all those games, but in keeping with a tournament characterised by the rise of upstarts, survived through sheer tenacity.
If the Elephants reclaim the continental trophy against bitter West African rivals Nigeria it will complete a remarkable comeback by Haller, who also missed their opening three group stage matches due to injury.
Haller made his Afcon introduction coming off the bench to help Ivory Coast upset favourites Senegal on penalties in the last 16. He featured strongly in the dramatic 2-1 win over Mali in the quarterfinal and scored the lone goal in the semifinal against DR Congo to spark a nation into a frenzy.
Looking ahead to the final, Haller admitted the past few months have not been easy for him but said he is focusing on the game and hopes they can topple the Super Eagles on Sunday.
“The last one-and-a-half years have been challenging for myself, the family and everyone,” he said.
“I have a feeling that no matter what you want to do something will always happen, so I just take everything step by step and just try to enjoy the moment and not to have any regrets.
“It is a great moment to be here and speak about the Africa Cup of Nations final. I hope I will be able to enjoy it on Sunday against Nigeria. I think it will take a few more months and years to realise what happened to me over the past few months.”
Haller said sitting on the sidelines during the group stages was frustrating.
“I started the tournament on the stands and I know how frustrating that is. But I made it with the support from everyone around me because they made me realise I was important.”
The big, physical 29-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker reflected on his journey undergoing chemotherapy.
“To be honest it wasn't easy. I decided to spend my vacation here in the Ivory Coast to be able to prepare for the tournament.
“When you have something around your neck during treatment, it is complicated and there are so many questions that remain and you start doubting yourself. But fortunately I had family, teammates and a country that has supported me.”
Haller admitted he feels the pressure of being the man tasked with getting the goals for an expectant host nation.
“I feel the pressure to score because I am a striker, but the responsibility must be taken by everyone and this is how football works. We have come from far and we went through trying times as a team, especially after the [4-0] defeat to Equatorial Guinea, so today we have that feeling we don’t have much to lose.
“We just want to give it our all, we were fortunate to have a second chance and we have to take it and make sure we have no regrets when we leave that pitch. I believe this is what has led to this; that we are tightly-knit group. We faced this nightmare of almost going out of the competition.
“I am expecting a tough and physically demanding game. We know how the Nigerians play, it is up to us to cause them problems, use the defensive line wide and create space between the defenders and use their weaknesses.
“We went through trying times and what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. That we experienced bad moments at the beginning of the tournament made us stronger.”
Nigeria senior player and squad captain Ahmed Musa, who has not been fielded at Afcon, said the Super Eagles are determined to reclaim the trophy.
“We are focused as a team and we will be executing our duties as best as we can to achieve our mission, and we are ready as a team to deliver for the fans,” the forward who plays for Turkish Süper Lig club Sivasspor said.
“The most important thing is for us to win the tournament because we are the most deserving up to now to win it.
“The Nigerian community deserves the happiness and unity that come with becoming Afcon champions.”
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