CAN 2024: Ivory Coast wins a third star against Nigeria, in a prestigious final

It took a hot and humid night to intoxicate thirty million Ivorian souls

CAN 2024: Ivory Coast wins a third star against Nigeria, in a prestigious final

It took a hot and humid night to intoxicate thirty million Ivorian souls. That evening, the sky of Abidjan, pitch black, seems to watch over its children, ready for the final confrontation. Sunday February 11, in a burning Alassane-Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé, Ivory Coast defeated Nigeria (2-1) in the final duel of “its” African Cup of Nations (CAN). For the third time in its history, the Elephants won the most prestigious title on the continent. A third star obtained on his land, as unexpected as it is unthinkable.

“It was written,” supporters now intone. Easy to play the prophet once victory has been won; but is it so surprising to say that this triumph seemed inevitable as the Ivorians' progress throughout the tournament was irrational?

Backtracking. After a success against Guinea Bissau (2-0), the Elephants plunge into the unknown: defeat against Nigeria (0-1), slam against Equatorial Guinea (0-4), the team is all close to being eliminated. The players are in tears, mocked by their own fans; the coach, Jean-Louis Gasset, resigns while there remains a slim chance of progressing to the eighth. He is replaced by his assistant Emerse Faé, appointed interim coach. Finally, to add incomprehension to a confusing situation, the Ivorian federation tried, without success, to recruit Hervé Renard who had won the 2015 CAN with the Elephants. “We came close to a nightmare,” says star striker Sébastien Haller.

Emerse Faé catches up with his team with the orange jersey, thus preventing them from falling into the abyss of favorites eliminated in the group stages (Algeria, Ghana, Tunisia, etc.). She was finally drafted thanks to a victory for Morocco against Zambia (0-1). Since then, Ivorians have worn Atlas Lion tunics to thank them.

“Last blow of the hammer”

The “miracles”, as their coach calls them, have a series of feats: victory against Senegal, defending champion, in the eighth (1-1, 4-5 tab), against Mali in the quarterfinals (1-2) – while They are reduced to ten – against the Republic of Congo (1-0) in the semi-finals. Paying tactical changes and the return from injury of Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra were good. And to think that Jean-Louis Gasset had hesitated to select them because of their state of form…

Sunday February 11th. From the beginning of the afternoon, under a baking sun, the supporters began to fill the stands. “We must finish the miracle,” proclaims one of them. The Ivorian press demands “one last blow of the hammer”, a reference to the hit Coup du hammer, produced by Tam Sir, which became the other national anthem.

The Elephants find the Super Eagles who beat them in the group stage. But Nigeria faces another Ivorian team, regenerated, confident, which the trials in this tournament seem to have made indestructible. “We have come a long way, we know we are lucky to have a second one. It’s up to us not to waste it,” points out Sébastien Haller who “expects a physically tough match.”

No “favorite” for Nigeria coach José Peseiro. “No fear” for center forward Ahmed Musa against the Elephants whom fate protects. Nigeria is not a convenient adversary. Monsters of African football, the Eagles are playing in their eighth final (they have won three). Known for being a land of attackers, Nigeria showed that the team could erect a green barrier with its five-man defense (the best in the tournament with two goals conceded). “It’s up to us to give them problems to stretch their lines and create space. It’s up to us to use their weaknesses to create opportunities,” said Sébastien Haller. The Super Eagles can count on the titanic impact of Victor Osimhen. The masked attacker, recently elected best African player of 2023, is working tirelessly to win the fourth title that has eluded this nation since 2013.

A transfigured team

6 p.m. and dust. The limousine of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara arrives near the pitch of a stadium that bears his name. Acclaimed, he greets the crowd, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA and Patrice Motsepe, boss of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). The head of state had promised to organize “the most beautiful CAN in history”, all that is missing is a victory.

6:54 p.m. The ceremony has begun and so do the first thrills when Alpha Blondy, the Ivorian reggae legend, arrives on the field. The arena is plunged into darkness, illuminated by thousands of telephones and Cocody Rock sings in chorus. Twenty minutes later, the stadium is full – which has never happened since the start of the tournament – ​​to welcome the two teams for the warm-up. A part of the country poured into the stands, united under a single color: orange.

20 hours. It's no longer the same team. Serious, diligent, disciplined, the Elephants impose their tempo, to the insane rhythm of the supporters' songs and drums. In the 7th minute, on a cross from Franck Kessié, Sébastien Haller was close to deflecting the ball into the back of the net. A few breaths later, Adingra sneaks Neymar style into the opposing area but his shot flies away. An orange storm is falling on Nigeria: corners, crosses, free kicks... Max-Alain Gradel, 36, attempts a scissor which fails in the small outside net. The Ivorians are suffocating the Nigerians. They refuse, for the moment, the duel.

34th minute. On an opening from Kessié (again), Adingra (still) shifts and crosses a sublime shot, well deflected by the goalkeeper. Nigeria is hot and the 30°C felt with 97% humidity has nothing to do with it. A little air conditioning: on a corner taken by Ademola Lookman, Nigerian defender William Troost-Ekong beats Serge Aurier and scores with a header (38th) against the run of play. Osimhen doesn't believe it any more than the public. The Elephants continue their march forward to seek the equalizer or yet another miracle.

Half time. Certainly led, Côte d'Ivoire dominates with insolence (65% possession). It continues to combine wonderfully: shift, speed, and on an advance from Adingra, the central attacker, the shot is deflected but Gradel, alone, recovers the ball, attempts a strike that a foot of the Super Eagles slows down (50th ). Ivory Coast misses too many opportunities. A few minutes later, from twenty meters, Odilon Kossounou powerfully tried his luck: the ball was deflected for a corner. Miracle ? On this set piece, Kessié, the man we wanted to leave on the bench, equalizes with a header full of rage (62nd).

Transe collective

What else can happen to the Elephants? Untouchables. Impregnable. The atmosphere is crazy. We feel the presence of the whole country in the chants of the supporters. Wasn't there a sound during the opening match? It was last month, forever.

The Elephants continue to charge. Sébastien Haller is very close to scoring the CAN goal, his return is not far from the right post. For the story to be sublime, a boy adored by his country, recovered from cancer, had to deliver the last blow of the hammer. On a cross from Adingra, Haller subtly shifts the ball into the net (82nd). The stadium explodes. The party is getting ready. The third star is not far away.

At the final whistle, the stadium embraces itself in a collective trance. Players and public move like dervishes. And there are these smiles that light up faces and these tears, in abundance. After 1992 and 2015, Ivory Coast won its third star, on its land. This hasn't happened since 2006 and Egypt. Humiliated, resurrected, miraculous, then feared. The Elephants' journey is unreal. The supporters have just promised it: “Tomorrow Monday is a holiday. »