Kings of Africa: Elephants charge to Afcon title against Nigeria

12 February 2024 - 00:23
Ivory Coast's Sebastien Haller celebrates scoring their second goal with Simon Adingra in the Afcon final at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara, Abidjan, Ivory Coast on February 11 2024.
Image: REUTERS/Luc Gnago Ivory Coast's Sebastien Haller celebrates scoring their second goal with Simon Adingra in the Afcon final at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara, Abidjan, Ivory Coast on February 11 2024.

They sang incessantly for the duration of the match and beat the drums loud to create deafening noise that shook this stadium to its foundations. 

The Elephants stomped their authority to win their third Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) trophy with a 2-1 win over West African rivals Nigeria here in Abidjan on Sunday night in a thoroughly entertaining final, a fitting culmination to an excellent tournament. 

Ivory Coast were stunned in the first half by the opening goal from inspirational Nigerian captain William Troost-Ekong (38th minute) but the hosts responded strongly with two goals from Franck Kessie (62nd) and poster boy Sébastien Haller (81st). 

The final defeat was a huge disappointment for Nigeria as they played good football throughout the tournament and actually beat Ivory Coast during the group stages, who had problems at that time. 

For Haller, who scored the winner in the late stages, this was a remarkable comeback as just over a year ago he was diagnosed with cancer and lay in hospital with his career in the balance. 

It was the same for Ivory Coast as a collective as they somehow made it to the final despite having been on the brink of an embarrassing elimination after the group stages, only progressing as one of the four best third-placed finishers. 

With their victory, Ivory Coast attained revenge for their 1-0 defeat to the Super Eagles in group stages at the same venue, the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara d'Ebimpé, which holds just over 60,000 people, all of whom created a vociferous carnival atmosphere on Sunday. 

Before the match, Ivory Coast legends Didier Drogba and Gadji Celi introduced the trophy to the field to thunderous applause from the partisan full house that painted the venue orange. 

There were emotional renditions of the national anthems but it was Ivory Coast’s L'Abidjanaise that of course received the most applause as the locals spurred their players on. 

Ivory Coast were playing in the final for the first time since 2015 when they beat regional rivals Ghana on penalties in Equatorial Guinea.

It was Nigeria's first final since they beat Burkina Faso 1-0 at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg in 2013 under the guidance of legendary late coach and defensive star Stephen Keshi. 

Ivory Coast settled first in the match and created the most notable chances with  Haller, Simon Adingra and veteran attacker Max Gradel a nuisance to the Nigerians. 

As the match progressed, the Super Eagles found their feet as Victor Osimhen and Ademola Lookman started to threaten an Ivory Coast defence marshalled by Kouakou Kassounou and Obite Ndicka. 

A talking point occurred in the 27th minute when referee Dahane Beita of Mauritania warned Nigeria coach José Peseiro with a yellow card for what seemed to be a case of demonstrative language. 

A few minutes later, Ivory Coast broke free with a breathtaking attacking move that resulted in Adingra’s close-range shot being parried away for safety by alert Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali. 

Nigeria opened the scoring through their inspirational captain Ekong, producing a powerful jump and header from a corner kick.

The opener did not dampen the spirits of the Ivory Coast supporters who upped the volume to motivate their players. 

It was Ekong’s third goal of the tournament after he kissed the back of the net in wins over the Elephants in their group stage meeting and against South Africa in the semifinal. 

On the stroke of half time, Osimhen went down on the side of the field with what looked like a thigh problem but he was able to carry on to the break where he received further medical attention. 

Kessie equalised with a thunderous header after the Nigerian defence was caught flat. This caused the venue, refurbished for the tournament, to erupt and threw the game wide open. 

Haller scored the winner with nine minutes remaining to start nationwide wide celebrations in this soccer mad-country.