This will be the 15th time the hosts have had the opportunity to contest the tournament final, and the first since Egypt defeated Les Elephants to win their fifth crown in Cairo 18 years ago.
Considering the intoxicating highs of the last week, it’s become easy to forget just how bleak things had become for the West African giants earlier in the campaign, and how astonishing their run to Sunday’s date with destiny has actually been.
Cast your minds back to Jan. 24, only 18 breathless days ago. This was the lowest ebb. The Ivorians had been smashed 4-0 at home by Equatorial Guinea, ranked 88th in the world, and had just parted ways with their head coach Jean Louis Gasset. At the time of the Frenchman’s exit, on the back of their underwhelming group-stage campaign, the Ivorians didn’t yet know that they would progress to the knockout stages.
By the final whistle of their disastrous outing against Equatorial Guinea, they required a series of results in the other groups to go their way in order for the hosts — with three points and a minus three goal difference — to advance to the round of 16 as one of the three lucky losers.
With calculators firmly at the ready in the Ivorian team camp, one by one, those results came in, with qualification eventually being confirmed only hours after Gasset’s departure, as Morocco defeated Zambia 1-0 in San-Pedro. The Elephants found themselves progressing — statistically the worst ever group stage team to do so at a Nations Cup — but without a head coach.
It’s at this point that Gasset’s erstwhile assistant Emerse Faé, a 40-cap utility man for the national side during his playing career, steps firmly into centre-stage, as the Ivorian Football Federation turned to him to hold the tiller to see out the rest of the campaign. Now, the Ivorians are referring to Faé as the “Special One,” even though he’d never managed a full senior competitive game before Jan. 29.
As I wrote on Feb. 3, following the Elephants’ shock round-of-16 elimination of tournament holders Senegal, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly which had been the most astonishing element of the hosts’ campaign at that point. Was it the historic 4-0 battering by Equatorial Guinea, the dismissal of a head coach mid-tournament, progressing despite their miserable record, the late equaliser and penalty shootout victory of Senegal?
The quarterfinal against Mali took things to another level. Ivory Coast, in truth, looked jittery and nervous despite dispatching the reigning champions, with the hapless Odilon Kossounou seeing red in the 43rd minute during a horror display, with Mali earlier having had a penalty turned down by VAR, before missing another after the defender’s first bookable offence.
In the intense heat and humid conditions, going down to 10 men looked fatal for the Elephants, particularly when Nene Dorgeles opened the scoring 71 minutes from time. Buoyed on by an electric crowd in Bouaké, however, Simon Adingra equalised in the 90th minute to take the contest to extra time, but with the 10-men Ivorians increasingly sapped, it appeared only to be prolonging the inevitable.
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Veteran Max-Alain Gradel later claimed that it was hearing the supporters spontaneously singing L’Abidjanaise — the country’s national anthem — during the prolongation that gave the team the additional encouragement for one final push. The result was Oumar Diakité’s 122nd-minute back- heeled flick that diverted a rasping Seko Fofana into the Mali net and sent the Ivorians through to the final four.
It was the most famous victory for the national side since the Golden Generation finally claimed the Nations Cup title by defeating Ghana in Bata in 2015, and arguably — in terms of the way it emotionally united the country — even surpassed that.
The semifinal victory over the Democratic Republic of Congo was relatively sedate by comparison, although there was still opportunity for Sébastien Haller, a shadow of himself during this tournament, in truth, as he continues his recovery from an ankle injury, to leave his mark on the competition. Drafted into the starting XI, Haller scored the only goal of the game with an acrobatic volley — a moment of inspiration that few other Elephants could have mustered — to settle the contest in the 65th minute.
“We’ve had our difficult days, both emotionally and mentally,” Faé said ahead of the final. “Losing 4-0 at home was terrible, and then we had to wait [to qualify.]
“It was hard for us to imagine that we could have reached the final, but now we’re here and here on merit.
He added: “I’m very happy, but also very emotional, this is like a dream. When we look back two weeks, to the defeat against Equatorial Guinea, you couldn’t have imagined this.”
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Colin Udoh gives an early preview of the AFCON final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
This all brings us to Sunday’s meeting with an impressive Nigeria team who haven’t endured as rocky a road of things as the hosts, having conceded only one goal in open play during the course of the tournament to date.
There’s a bubbling sense of expectation around Abidjan, and a belief that, with momentum and the home support behind them, the Elephants are on the brink of ascending to their throne to claim a third title. However, across the city, some are more realistic about the national side’s prospects of pulling out one more big result. One taxi driver I spoke to — Jean Pierre Kouadio — had been gauging supporter expectation during his shifts since the semi.
“The hope was to reach the final, so many people are saying our AFCON has already been a success,” he began, “but now that we’re here, we have to keep the cup with us. We cannot let it leave the country.”
Fervour is mounting. The city is awash with the Ivory Coast’s orange Puma kits, with everyone from street sellers to waiters wearing the colours of the national side as though it was a civil responsibility. Mannequins in shops not usually dedicated to sportswear have been stripped of their regular attire and are now donning the same, while taxis carry Morocco flags — in honour of the Atlas Lions’ contribution to the hosts’ unlikely group-stage survival.
There’s definitely something magical about the team’s run, that’s captured the attention and revealed a certain romance in the populace’s relationship with the national side. It’s a special bond, epitomised by the ultimate fanboy antics of Didier Drogba, and cohorts, messrs Wilfried Bony and Djibril Cissé, as they celebrated the final whistle of the semi, on the touchline at Ebimpé, with the joy of youngsters witnessing their first ever international tournament.
At the heart of the Elephants’ revival is Faé, who has managed to tread a fine line between wide-eyed wonderment and sleeves-rolled-up pragmatism as he set about the unenviable task of picking up the pieces after Gasset left his post.
“Even as a player I didn’t experience such powerful moments with such a scenario as this,” he told ESPN earnestly after the semifinal victory. “I never lived such a thing before, but we’re making the most of it as we go along.”
His frankness, honesty and patriotism have endeared him to a populace who were shattered after the 4-0 defeat, and he’s already demonstrated some impressive management fundamentals across the first three matches of his first ever senior head coaching role.
So far, Faé has eliminated Africa’s champions, overseen a 10-man extra-time comeback against Mali, and won a major semifinal on home soil. How many rookie managers can say that? Faé, like his team, continues to grow as immortality lies in wait.
“What changed is that we’ve found confidence,” he said. “We lacked speed, conviction, confidence in the group stage, mentally we weren’t there.
“However, after eliminating Senegal — the reigning champions — then scoring in the 90th and the 120th minute as 10 men against Mali, gave us a smile and gave us our confidence back.”
In a repeat of 2019, when Senegal and Algeria met in the group stage before contesting the final, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire must now duke it out again. The Super Eagles had the upper hand in the first match — winning 1-0 — but, as Faé would attest, a lot has changed since then.