Afcon final: Fae hails Ivory Coast's 'miracle survivors' as hosts beat Nigeria

Sebastien Haller, who only returned to action a year ago after cancer treatment, scored winner to complete 2-1 comeback victory

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Ivory Coast coach Emerse Fae hailed his "miracle survivors" after the host country completed one of the greatest turnarounds in tournament history to win the Africa Cup of Nations, beating favourites Nigeria in Sunday's final.

"It is more than a fairytale. I am struggling to take it all in," said Fae, who only took charge of the team midway through the tournament after the dismissal of Jean-Louis Gasset.

"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."

It was only fitting then that Sebastien Haller, whose tournament was disrupted by injury and who only returned to competitive action last year after treatment for cancer, would score a dramatic late winner as Ivory Coast fought back to claim a 2-1 victory.

Nigeria looked set to repeat their 1-0 victory over the Ivorians at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium during the group stage when captain William Troost-Ekong – who had netted a penalty to decide that first meeting – rose to head in the opener late in the first half.

However, Franck Kessie equalised just after the hour mark and Haller turned in Simon Adingra's cross in the 81st minute to spark wild celebrations among the sea of orange in the Abidjan stands.

Sunday's 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 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.

Ivory Coast 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," said Fae, who turned 40 on the day he became coach.

"I can't properly express my joy. It is massive. I dreamt 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 Adingra's cross for the clinching goal in the final.

"We dreamt of this moment so many times," an emotional Haller told BeIN Sports.

"These scenes 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 for today."

"Ivory Coast were better than us today," admitted Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro.

"I am sad, my team is sad, but for me they did the maximum, each one. Sometimes you want to do something but you cannot do it."

Updated: February 12, 2024, 10:49 AM