Sebastien Haller is one game away from leading the Ivory Coast to the Africa Cup of Nations title – a little more than a year since returning to the game after treatment for cancer.
Haller fired the host nation into Sunday's final against Nigeria at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium with the only goal of the game in their 1-0 victory over DR Congo in the semi-finals.
The Borussia Dortmund striker has been the face of the tournament in his homeland, but the Congo victory represented his first start. Injury had restricted him to substitute appearances up to that point, with the Ivorians hoping he would come back and make the difference.
So it proved, as his unorthodox volleyed finish saw the Elephants past the Congolese and into the final against the much-fancied Super Eagles.
“It’s kind of a great moment today to be here in front of you speaking about the final, about the Africa Cup in your own country,” Haller said at the pre-match press conference on Saturday. “I’m just enjoying it. I hope that tomorrow I will enjoy as well. But I think I will take a few months or a few years to really realise what’s happened in the last years.”
Haller played in the Ivorian team that went out of the 2019 Cup of Nations in Cameroon in the last 16. At that point he was one of Europe's most in-form strikers following his goalscoring exploits with Amsterdam giants Ajax.
A move to Dortmund followed in July 2022 but he was diagnosed with testicular cancer just days after signing, and many months of treatment ensued, including four bouts of chemotherapy and two operations. His first official game for BVB only came in January 2023.
“Obviously the last one and a half years have been quite challenging for myself, for the family, for everyone,” he said. “I have the feeling that no matter what you want to do, something will happen. So, I just take everything step by step. And I just try to enjoy every moment, take every choice, not have any regrets.”
Turning his attention to the clash with Nigeria, Haller said he welcomed the pressure of an expectant home support.
“But this is a good pressure as well," he said. "You’re playing the Africa Cup in your own country, you have a lot of people that are just pushing you, to support you every day,” Haller said. “It gives you the strength to just perform. So, that’s a beautiful thing. And I hope that this good pressure will bring my country to the top.”
Meanwhile, Nigeria left back Zaidu Sanusi will undergo a fitness test ahead of the game, according to coach Jose Peseiro. Sanusi, 26, missed the semi-final win over South Africa with a hamstring problem, disrupting a mean Nigerian defence that has excelled throughout the tournament.
"He was partially involved in Friday training and we will check his condition again tonight before we make a decision," said Peseiro.
Sanusi is the only concern for the Super Eagles, who have perhaps been the competition's most impressive side and beat the Ivorians in the group stages.
But Peseiro, the former Al Wahda and Sharjah coach, said: "There is no favourite for the final. I think each side has a 50 per cent chance but we are determined to win this final."