The tip of Sebastien Haller’s big toe has got us thoroughly rattled.
If Cote d’Ivoire’s narrative arc was written into a movie, you’d stand up, spike your popcorn into the sticky carpet, and storm out of the cinema before demanding a refund for the utter madness you’ve just witnessed.
Things like the Ivory Coast’s AFCON journey don’t happen in real life. They just don’t.
You do not host the tournament, crumble to a 4-0 shellacking by Equatorial Guinea, and sack your manager after your final group stage game, only to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.
You also don’t then put the assistant manager in charge of a senior football team for the first time in his entire f*cking life, knock the reigning champs, Senegal, out in the round of 16 via a last-minute equaliser and a penalty shootout.
Other things you simply don’t do might include snatching an equaliser at the death of the quarter-final against Mali, followed by a 122nd-minute winner.
Or, if you had miraculously achieved all of the aforementioned fantasy novel bullsh*t, you’re extremely unlikely to then beat DR Congo in the semifinal with a goal from your talismanic striker Sebastien Haller on the anniversary of his first goal following a recovery from testicular cancer.
That would be silly. No one would believe it. Get rid of the script, start again, you’re being daft.
Happened, though, didn’t it? Only bloody happened.
Sebastien Haller had cancer in 2022.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) February 12, 2024
By the time the AFCON final started last night, none of us were ruling anything out. Usually, rational people were mumbling to themselves, wide-eyed, about fate and zombie elephants.
The Ivorians were up against Nigeria, who’d already beaten them 1-0 in the group stages. It seemed like we were set for a repeat of that game, as the Super Eagles took the lead through William Troost-Ekong on 38 minutes.
The world seemed a little more real again. Nigeria, with perhaps the strongest squad in the tournament, were unlikely to give up a 1-0 advantage. The Ivorians weren’t immortal, after all. Zombie elephants aren’t real. Zombie elephants can’t hurt you.
Franck Kessie then headed an equaliser just after the hour mark and suddenly elephants seem quite scary again. They couldn’t, could they? Nahhhhh.
Then, it happened. The ultimate get the f*ck out moment. The moment that will make your great-great-grandkids think you’re lying to them when you recount this story to them via hologram from beyond the grave.
Sebastien Haller gets his big toe on the end of an Adingra cross to send the ball spinning into the side netting with less than eight minutes of normal time to play.
Haller, of all people. Haller, who, following the rejuvenation of his career at Ajax, smashing goals in for fun, had only just made his big, potentially career-defining move to Dortmund, only to have his life and career halted by a terrifying diagnosis of testicular cancer.
Truly emotional moment for 🇨🇮Sébastien Haller as he was surrounded by loved ones to celebrate another big win. #AFCON2023
Won the battle against cancer and now the battle for his country of birth with two crucial strikes in the Semis and finals.❤❤❤❤ pic.twitter.com/CE0Qa1zuFz
— George Addo Jnr (@addojunr) February 12, 2024
Six months of treatment and, thank goodness, Haller made a full recovery and was back on the pitch and back scoring goals. This particular goal, though. This was the one. This was as good as it gets.
Les Elephants held out until the final whistle to win only their third AFCON, in front of a delirious home crowd including a euphoric-looking Didier Drogba, with a makeshift coach, and a new national hero.
You might not believe in fate, but whatever just happened in the Cote d’Ivoire, it felt a little bit supernatural. The sort of thing that gets turned into legend and, eventually, myth.
The tall tale of Sebastien Haller and the Zombie Elephants.
By Andrew Martin