From battling Cancer to lifting the trophy: Haller leads Ivory Coast to historic AFCON glory

Immediately following his goal that sank Ivory Coast to one of the most improbable victories at the Africa Cup of Nations, Sebastien Haller was forced to interrupt a television interview due to a severe downpour.

After maintaining a courageous façade for an extended period, it was at this juncture that the profound impact of his arduous two-year ordeal leading up to the Elephants’ turbulent victory became apparent, and he was understandably overcome with emotion.

Just 18 months removed from a testicular cancer diagnosis and grueling treatment, Haller’s 81st-minute flick sent the Ivorian home crowd into raptures, completing a remarkable comeback for both player and nation. The victory marks Ivory Coast’s third AFCON title, their first since 2015, and a significant triumph for a team that started the tournament on shaky ground.

After finishing third in their group stage – only the fourth team in AFCON history to do so and ultimately win the title – the Elephants faced an uphill battle. A coaching change, inspired performances, and a touch of destiny propelled them past Senegal, Mali, and Congo DR, setting the stage for a pulsating final against their West African rivals.

Nigeria, seeking their fourth AFCON crown, took the lead through captain William Troost-Ekong in the first half. But the resilient Ivorians refused to crumble. Franck Kessie’s headed equalizer shortly after the hour mark injected new life into the hosts, and the stage was set for Haller’s heroics.

Latching onto a cross from Maxwel Cornet, the Borussia Dortmund striker displayed remarkable composure to guide the ball beyond Nigeria’s Francis Uzoho, sparking pandemonium in the Ivorian capital. The final whistle confirmed a historic triumph, not just for Ivory Coast, but for Haller, whose perseverance and courage in the face of adversity resonated across the continent and beyond.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Haller, overcome with emotion after the final. “To be here, celebrating with my teammates, the fans, everyone who supported me… it’s hard to put into words. This trophy is for everyone who believed in me, even when I doubted myself.”

Haller’s journey has been an inspiration to millions. Diagnosed with cancer in July 2022, his career and life were put on hold as he underwent treatment. But his determination to return to the field never wavered. He made his comeback for Borussia Dortmund in January 2023, scoring on World Cancer Day – a poignant moment that symbolized his fighting spirit.

His AFCON performance was a testament to that spirit. Despite limited playing time throughout the tournament, he made his mark when it mattered most, becoming the unlikely hero of a nation’s triumph.

Ivory Coast’s victory, built on resilience and belief, was a fitting end to a dramatic tournament. The Elephants defied the odds, overcoming a shaky start and silencing their doubters to write their names into the history books. But for Haller, the win represented so much more – a personal victory over adversity, a symbol of hope, and a reminder that even in the face of immense challenges, dreams can still come true.

The 2023 AFCON will be remembered for many reasons, but the image of Haller, trophy held high, celebrating with his teammates will undoubtedly stand out as a defining moment.