Ivory Coast savour AFCON triumph but future is unclear

Ivory Coast's Max-Alain Gradel lifts the Africa Cup of Nations trophy aloft after Sunday's final victory against Nigeria (FRANCK FIFE)
Ivory Coast's Max-Alain Gradel lifts the Africa Cup of Nations trophy aloft after Sunday's final victory against Nigeria (FRANCK FIFE)

Ivory Coast's stunning Africa Cup of Nations triumph was a fitting end to the most thrilling edition of the tournament in recent memory but the manner of their victory makes it impossible to imagine what the long-term impact could be.

The Elephants really should have been eliminated from their own competition in the group stage after losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea on January 22, their heaviest ever home defeat.

That would have made them just the second host country in 30 years to go out of the AFCON in the group stage, but instead they squeezed through as the last of the four best third-placed teams.

Their group-stage showing led to the departure of veteran French coach Jean-Louis Gasset, who had been in charge since May 2022.

He was replaced by Emerse Fae, a former Ivorian international who had never coached before.

Yet Fae oversaw an incredible turnaround in the team's fortunes, as the Ivorians came from behind to beat holders Senegal in the last 16 and overcame a 1-0 deficit with 10 men to beat Mali in the quarter-finals.

After beating the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 in the last four, it felt somehow inevitable that they would win the final, and it was apt that they came from behind to beat Nigeria 2-1 to lift the trophy.

"We are miracle survivors, but I think we had to go through everything we went through in order to really understand that it all could end at any moment," said midfielder Seko Fofana.

"Take the example of Senegal, who had won all their games and then got knocked out by us. We were in difficulty, with two defeats in the group stage. We adapted to a difficult context and did what we had to do to make the country proud."

- Haller comeback story -

It also felt fitting that the match-winner in the semi-final and final should be Sebastien Haller, given how remarkable the Borussia Dortmund striker's own story has been.

A year ago he was just returning to action after treatment for testicular cancer. Seen as the leader of the Ivorian team here, he suffered an ankle injury with his club in December and played no part during the group stage.

It is Ivory Coast's third Cup of Nations triumph, putting them level with Nigeria and behind only Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana as teams with the most victories.

Ivorians will feel a sense of pride at their victory as well as with the success of the tournament, which with 119 goals scored was more prolific than either of the two previous editions since the AFCON was expanded to 24 teams.

An average of 2.29 goals per game was the highest at a Cup of Nations since 2012.

The focus remained entirely on the football, two years after the AFCON in Cameroon was marred by a deadly crush at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde which left eight people dead.

"They all have a special taste, but you have to say that there is nothing more beautiful than winning an AFCON at home," said Max-Alain Gradel, the only survivor along with Serge Aurier from the last Ivorian team to win the title in 2015.

"I don't think we could have dreamed of a better outcome."

- What next? -

It remains to be seen if Fae will keep the job permanently, something he had refused to discuss before the final.

"The honest truth is that I asked those in charge not to talk to us about what is going to happen after the competition," said the French-born Fae.

Whoever is in charge going forward, the Elephants, Africa's eighth-ranked side, should build on their AFCON success to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.

They already top a group containing Kenya, Gabon, Burundi, Gambia and Seychelles as they aim to become one of nine African nations to advance directly to the expanded 48-team tournament.

Before that they are supposed to defend their Cup of Nations crown in Morocco next year.

The only question, and not a small one, is when exactly that AFCON will take place, something Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe refused to confirm last week.

Morocco is preparing to host the competition in June and July next year, but a clash with FIFA's new, expanded Club World Cup could yet mean it gets brought forward to January and February.

as/jc