What you need to know:
- On their way to the final, set to be staged at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan tonight from 11pm (Kenyan time) host nation Cote d’Ivoire flirted with elimination throughout the tournament
- On one side, three-time champions Nigeria (1980, 1994 and 2013), are hungry for their fourth crown
- On the other, two-time winners Cote d’Ivoire (1992 and 2015) are fuelled by home soil advantage and a burning desire to lift the trophy after years of near misses
From the despair of a humiliating defeat, facing early group stage elimination, to the elation of a last-minute winner, Cote d’Ivoire’s 2023 Afcon journey has been a rollercoaster ride marked by resilience, comebacks, and unexpected heroes.
On their way to the final, set to be staged at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan tonight from 11pm (Kenyan time) host nation Cote d’Ivoire flirted with elimination throughout the tournament.
As the curtain falls on the delayed 2023 African showpiece that has served drama on a silver platter, two titans stand poised for a final clash.
On one side, three-time champions Nigeria (1980, 1994 and 2013), are hungry for their fourth crown. On the other, two-time winners Cote d’Ivoire (1992 and 2015) are fuelled by home soil advantage and a burning desire to lift the trophy after years of near misses. The Super Eagles have displayed moments of brilliance.
But their journey to the final hasn’t been without hiccups.
A 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea in the group stages serves as a reminder that their path hasn’t been paved solely with victories. After their opener against Equatorial Guinea was smooth sailing for Nigeria as they beat Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon (Round of 16), Angola (quarter-finals) and Bafana Bafana in the semi-finals.
Written off after early stumbles
But for Cote d’Ivoire, the narrative reads differently. Written off after early stumbles, they’ve risen from the ashes, fuelled by resilience and a touch of fortune.
Their tournament began on a good note as they beat Guinea-Bissau. However, Cote d’Ivoire’s journey took a nightmarish turn, losing against Nigeria and following up that with a 4-0 pummelling by Equatorial Guinea.
With their fate hanging in the balance, Cote d’Ivoire relied on other results to scrape into the knockout stages.
It took Morocco’s 1-0 win over Zambia to earn them a last 16 place.
“Going into that Last 16 match, facing a Senegal side that had started the tournament so strongly, everyone concluded it was the end of the journey for the hosts. But that dramatic comeback restored their confidence,” Tokelo Mokhesi tells Nation Sport.
“You should have seen the celebrations. It was as though they had already won the Afcon. But it was understandable considering how they had started the tournament.”
At that point, Jean Louis Gasset was shown the exit door and replaced by Emerse Fae, a former Reading star.
The appointment came after a failed attempt by the Ivory Coast Football Federation to bring Hervé Renard, the renowned coach of the France Women’s national team, on loan for the remainder of the tournament.
Against Mali, they played with 10 men and equalised with only five minutes to go. Oumar Diakite, a 20-year-old, rose from the bench and scored his first international goal in the 120th minute to beat Mali in the quarterfinal 2-1. And then they laboured for a 1-0 win over DR Congo in the semi-final.
Despite contrasting fortunes in the early stages of the competition, Fae insists the “playing field is level”.
Playing on a level field
“We’re playing on a level field even though we have had different starts to the tournament. They started with a draw and have had a perfect tournament. They grew into the tournament and have been stronger defensively and sharp up front.
“We didn’t start well. The two teams are on the same level. Like any game, like any final, we will try our best. We’re not going to rush anything, and we’ll focus on starting the game on the front foot,” Fae told journalists during the MD-1 press conference.
His opposite number, Jose Peseiro, said they were going all out to win the Afcon.
“Of course, a big game. The final. Good atmosphere. I think full stadium. Both teams will want to win. We’re happy to reach this final. My boys are doing a fantastic job, amazing. I’m happy altogether until now. But we want to win the final. My team is doing the best, but we want to win Afcon,” he said.
The Super Eagles are chasing their fourth continental title, having last won it in 2013.
The Elephants won it for the second time in 2015 and will be gunning for a third one.
Fae will bank on the experience of Sebastien Haller and Simon Adingra, with Seko Fofana and Franckie Kessie expected to pull the strings in midfield.
Peseiro will hope Stanley Nwabali rises to the occasion yet again after only conceding two goals in the tournament. Victor Osimhen, Moses Simon and Ademola Lookman have the responsibility to get the Super Eagles goals. The hosts have conceded seven goals and will have to tighten at the back if they entertain any hopes of lifting the coveted trophy. They have scored six goals, one less than Nigeria’s seven.