AFCON 2023: Ivory Coast in final of dream tournament

AFCON 2023: Ivory Coast in final of dream tournament

It would be fair to say Ivory Coast shouldn't even be in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final.

But, two weeks after a shock 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea that seemed to all but spell the end of their tournament, the Elephants, as they are nicknamed, are in their first AFCON final in nearly a decade.

The hosts' semifinal win over the Democratic Republic of Congo saw the same fans who destroyed buses outside the stadium in anger at the four-goal drubbing celebrate with joy, determined to turn night into day in Ivory Coast.

"They thought we were dead," a fan said afterward. "But when you die and are resurrected, you become even stronger. So the AFCON will be staying in Ivory Coast. The AFCON is ours. The AFCON is for Ivorians."

Win, loss, survive

Although not considered favorites, Ivory Coast was given an outside chance as hosts. With a festive atmosphere around the country, more than 35,000 fans in Abidjan saw Ivory Coast comfortably win their opening game against Guinea-Bissau, a team that to that date had failed to win any of their 10 Africa Cup of Nations matches.

The narrow defeat to fellow West African heavyweight Nigeria in their second group-stage match was widely regarded as little more than a speed bump.

But four days later, in the heat of Ebimpe Olympic Stadium, a nation in shock witnessed that embarrassing performance against Equatorial Guinea. It was the heaviest defeat suffered by a tournament host, and former Ivory Coast captain and all-time top scorer Didier Drogba told Ivorian broadcaster NCI after the game that "there is a real problem." He added that the people in charge need to "not only ask the right questions but also make the right decisions".

Ivory Coast players are disappointed on the ground after their loss to Equatorial-Guinea
Ivory Coast's AFCON dream came close to elimination after their loss to Equatorial-Guinea

One of those decisions followed shortly afterward, as Ivory Coast sacked their coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Dreams of a third AFCON title were drifting away.

But in a bizarre twist of events, it was later confirmed the Elephants had indeed qualified for the knockouts. Despite finishing third in their group with just three points and a minus-three goal difference, they advanced as one of the four best third-placed nations thanks to other results going their way.

Mozambique's two goals in stoppage time against Ghana left both teams on two points, and a single Morocco goal was enough to eliminate Zambia, opening the door for the Elephants. Fans flocked to the streets of Abidjan to celebrate as their team suddenly found themselves in the knockouts, albeit without a head coach.

"Our country, normally we don't need any coaching, because all the players are good, they play at good clubs in Europe," former Ivory Coast defender Emmanuel Eboue told BBC Sport. "So we just need someone who can talk to them nicely and bring a positive atmosphere to the group."

Fußball AFCON -  Emerse Fae, Trainer Elfenbeinküste
Emerse Fae took over as Ivory Coast's head coach mid-tournament

Comeback kings

Up stepped assistant coach Emerse Fae, the man who was part of the Ivory Coast team that finished as runners-up at the 2006 AFCON but had no experience coaching first-team football.

Fae's first game in charge was against the defending champions Senegal. After conceding within the first five minutes against a side that had comfortably won all three group games, Ivory Coast looked like they had finally come to the end of their road.

But a Franck Kessie penalty with four minutes left took the game into extra time and then to a penalty shootout. The hosts held their nerve, scoring all five spot-kicks, and suddenly they were in the quarterfinals.

Five days later, a man and a goal down against Mali with the clock nearing the 90-minute mark, the Elephants were yet again heading toward elimination. And yet, in keeping with a tournament that saw an entirely new set of quarterfinalists compared to the previous edition, there was, of course, still more drama to come.

Seko Fofana's last-minute shot was desperate, but Mali attempt to block it saw the ball fall into the path of Simon Adingra, who poked home on the brink of full time. When Oumar Diakite sent his nation into a frenzy with his last-minute winner in extra time, fans and players suddenly knew that anything was possible at this tournament.

Fans in Abidjan celebrate Ivory Coast's semifinal win over Congo
Fans in Abidjan celebrated Ivory Coast's semifinal win over Congo on January 29

Never-give-up mentality

Borussia Dortmund striker Sebastien Haller scored the only goal of the semifinal against Congo, sealing the Elephant's place in the final and setting up a grand finale in one of the most unexpected and thrilling tournament runs in AFCON history.

The semifinal win was the first game of the knockouts to finish inside 90 minutes, and it came in the same stadium where this team was on the brink of elimination just 16 days earlier. Now, the hosts are in the final against Nigeria on Sunday.

"It's like a dream," said coach Emerse Fae.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding

Correction, February 10, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Oumar Diakite. DW apologizes for the error.