When Ivory Coast won the right to host the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations, a lot of Ivorians believed that it was time for the country to win their third AFCON title.
The last time the country hosted Africa was in 1984 but the Elephants failed to reach the title match as Cameroon went on to defeat Nigeria 3-1 in the final.
Forty years later, the tournament returned to the Ivory Coast, and it was labelled by a large section of the Ivorian media that the country was ‘hosting to win’ as the Nations Cup drew nearer.
A 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau in the opening game raised a lot of hopes that the Elephants were definitely on the right track for another AFCON title.
Bad day at the office for Ivory Coast
However, it all started to crumble when the hosts were beaten 1-0 by Nigeria in the second group game. The Elephants had to win their last group game against Equatorial Guinea to guarantee passage to the Round of 16 and keep their destiny in their own hands.
The Ivory Coast capitulated on that cold and windy evening at the Stade Allasane Quattara in Abidjan as Equatorial Guinea totally trashed and outclassed the Elephants.
The 4-0 score was incredible and was described as Ivory Coast's most embarrassing moment in international football.
It all looked like the end of the road in the tournament for the hosts as they had to wait to see if they could go through as one of the best third-placed teams.
The was light at the end of the tunnel 48 hours later as Morocco’s 1-0 win over Zambia meant the hosts had sailed through to the Round of 16 as the 16th and final qualifier.
A lot of reorganisation was needed to avert further disaster.
The Ivorian Football Federation fired French coach Jean Louis-Gasset and former Ivorian international Emerse Fae took charge.
Haller's Ivory Coast return sparks Elephants
Fae’s taking charge of the team coincided with the return from injury of their top striker Sebastien Haller. The Borussia Dortmund forward missed all of the group stages due to injury and was primed to take some part in the latter stages of the tournament.
The Round of 16 tie against Senegal looked like a mountain too high to climb for the hosts as the Teranga Lions, who were holders and pre-tournament favourites, took the lead and looked set for the quarter-finals.
Late in the game and with the Ivory Coast looking to equalise, Fae threw Haller on to try and salvage the game. The powerful striker did what was asked of him as he tormented the Senegalese defence in the first few minutes of entrance.
Haller’s persistence paid off as his hold-up play and pass to Pepe saw the winger upended in the box for a late penalty to the Ivory Coast which Franck Kessie converted to draw the hosts level.
The 31-year-old converted his penalty in the eventual shoot-out to help his team see off defending champions Senegal 5-4 on penalties.
He came up big again in the quarter-final against Mali, hitting the post in extra time after coming up as a substitute and played a small part in Oumar Diakhate’s winner.
Haller then made his first start in the tournament against DR Congo in the semi-finals in the next game and became a hero for the Ivorians.
Midway into the second half, Max Gradel broke down the right and found space to cross the ball, Haller, though behind the ball, had to adjust his body to strike the ball on the grass and over the hapless Lionel Mpasi in the DR Congo goal.
It was a fairy tale journey for Haller and the Ivory Coast as fans took the celebration beyond the stadium and into the streets.
Hope alive for Haller and Ivory Coast
What looked like a campaign dead and buried has been revitalised by the appointment of Fae and the timely return of Haller.
Now, the Ivory Coast have a chance to avenge defeat by Nigeria in the group stage and also complete what has been a topsy-turvy tournament that almost ended in tears but is on the verge of glory for the Elephants and other Ivorians.
However, there is a small matter the final of the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations against the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
Maybe, just maybe Haller might be the hero again.