ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire — The 34th edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) concluded in fine style after Côte d’Ivoire came from behind to seal a magnificent third AFCON title against Nigeria.
“It is more than a fairytale. I am struggling to take it all in,” Côte d’Ivoire coach Emerse Fae said after his side recovered from behind at half-time at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium to win thanks to goals by Franck Kessie and Sebastien Haller.
“When I think about all we have been through, we are miracle survivors.
“We never gave up and we managed to come back from so many tough blows,” Fae noted according to AFP.
The victory before an official attendance of over 57,000 in Abidjan allowed the Elephants to win their third continental title.
They are the first host country to win the Cup of Nations since Egypt in 2006, and yet they very nearly went out in the group stage.
The Ivorians lost 1-0 to Nigeria in their second match before losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea, their heaviest-ever home defeat.
That made them the first AFCON hosts in 40 years to lose two group games and cost coach Jean-Louis Gasset his job.
However, they squeezed into the last 16 as the last of the four best third-placed teams, with former player Fae taking over on an interim basis.
Côte d’Ivoire beat holders Senegal on penalties in the last 16 after equalising late in normal time.
They beat Mali 2-1 in the quarter-finals with a winner in extra time, having been reduced to 10 men in the first half and trailing into the 90th minute.
That was followed by a 1-0 victory against the Democratic Republic of Congo in the semi-finals, before another comeback win in the final.
“All our games were difficult. We kept having to come from behind and we really had to draw on all our physical and mental reserves,” observed Fae, who turned 40 on the day he became coach.
“I can’t properly express my joy. It is massive. I dreamed of winning the AFCON as a player and didn’t manage it,” added Fae, who played in the side beaten by Egypt in the 2006 final.
“Now I have had the opportunity as a coach, albeit in strange circumstances.
“I took over when we were not even sure of getting out of our group. It was a strange birthday but thankfully we got a second chance and grabbed it.”
The story of Haller’s own tournament was remarkable too, with the Borussia Dortmund striker scoring the winner in the semi-final and the final.
He was almost substituted moments before turning in Simon Adingra’s cross for the clinching goal in the final.
“We dreamt of this moment so many times,” an emotional Haller told French broadcaster beIN Sports.
“This scene of joy, the country deserves this too.
“We kept believing until the end. My teammates pushed me to stay on the pitch for as long as possible and thanks to them I scored.”
Haller played no part in the group stage because of an ankle injury suffered in December, and did not start a game until the semi-final.
“It was one of my main goals to give everything I could at the AFCON,” he said.
“I was lucky to be here. Now we can say it, they were telling me six to eight weeks with my injury, so based on that today could have been my first match.
“My ankle still isn’t fully healed, but it was OK.”
Here is the complete winners list for the CAF AFCON 2023 winners list:
Winner: Côte d’Ivoire
Third: South Africa
Fourth: Democratic Republic of Congo
Best coach: Emerse Fae (Côte d’Ivoire)
Best player: William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria)
Golden boat: Emilio Nsue Lopez
Best goalkeeper: Ronwen Williams (South Africa)
Fair-Play team: South Africa