Abidjan — Ivory Coast’s victory over the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) semi-finals on Wednesday leaves them just 90 minutes away from completing arguably the most remarkable turnaround in major international tournament history.
Sebastien Haller’s goal was enough to give the host nation a 1-0 win over DR Congo at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium and set up a final date at the same venue on Sunday against Nigeria.
Just like five years ago in Egypt – when Algeria beat Senegal 1-0 in the first round and did so again to win the title – the AFCON final will be contested between two teams who met in the group stage.
Ivory Coast lost 1-0 to the Nigerians in Abidjan on January 18 and followed that by suffering a harrowing 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea four days later.
It was their heaviest ever home defeat and it made them the first Cup of Nations hosts to lose two group matches since the Ivorians themselves in 1984.
𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗠𝗢𝗠𝗘𝗡𝗧. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗙𝗜𝗡𝗔𝗟𝗘. 😮💨
🇳🇬 Nigeria 🆚 Côte d’Ivoire 🇨🇮
We’re finally at the #TotalEnergiesAFCON2023 final stop! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/eprsjsaXRl
— Total Energies AFCON (@TotalAFCON2023) February 7, 2024
Coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked, and the team waited to find out if they would somehow stay in the competition thanks to other results.
In the end they did, scraping through as the last of the four best third-placed teams, saved because Ghana conceded twice in injury time to draw with Mozambique in their last group match.
Emerse Fae, the former Elephants midfielder who had never managed a team before, took over on an interim basis, albeit only after an audacious attempt to hire Ivory Coast’s 2015 AFCON-winning coach Herve Renard on a short-term deal failed.
He has overseen an astonishing revival.
“After the humiliation against Equatorial Guinea, we looked ourselves in the mirror and said what needed to be said,” admitted midfielder Franck Kessie. “We saw we couldn’t do any worse.”
They ousted holders Senegal on penalties in the last 16 after being saved by a late penalty equaliser from Kessie in normal time.
Then they somehow beat Mali in the quarter-finals, coming back from a goal down to win 2-1 in extra time despite playing most of the match down to 10 men.
‘Can’t die twice’
Their equaliser arrived in the 90th minute, before Oumar Diakite scored the winner in added time in extra time.
Wednesday’s semi-final was all rather routine in comparison.
“We are not invincible but it is our mentality,” Simon Adingra, the vibrant Brighton and Hove Albion winger, told broadcaster Canal Plus Afrique.
“We were out of the tournament and then brought back in, so now we can’t commit any more errors.
“As we say here, we are already dead, so we can’t die twice.”
From finding themselves on the verge of being just the second AFCON hosts to go out in the group stage in 30 years, they now hope to become the first host country to win the trophy since Egypt in 2006.
Then it was Ivory Coast who lost the final on penalties to the Pharaohs, with Fae in the team alongside Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers.
ALSO READ | Nigeria set up AFCON final against hosts Ivory Coast
Fae, who turned 40 on the day he took charge of the side here, deserves immense credit for the work he has done in so little time.
Born in France to Ivorian parents, he played there for most of his career as a midfielder with Nantes and Nice, although there was also a brief spell in the English Premier League at Reading.
But problems with phlebitis caused him to stop playing aged just 28.
Fae has already enjoyed success at international level – he played alongside Florent Sinama Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec in the France team that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2001, beating Nigeria in the final.
Now he is hoping to overcome the Nigerians again and deliver a third Cup of Nations crown for Ivory Coast.
“It is a beautiful final. It gives us the chance to avenge our defeat in the group stage,” he told Canal Plus Afrique.
“As a player I won the Under-17 World Cup after losing the first game against Nigeria and then beating them in the final, so maybe that is a sign.”
Follow African Insider on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
For more African news, visit Africaninsider.com