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Ivory Coast are AFCON champions: From sacking manager to lifting trophy – this is their story

Children were dancing on the pitch, kissing the turf and throwing confetti in the air while a security guard chased after them.

Three hours after Ivory Coast beat Nigeria 2-1 to win the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) for the third time, hundreds of people were still inside the Alassane Ouattara Stadium. Volunteers wanted to go home, but supporters wanted to cling onto this magical moment for as long as possible.

They gatecrashed the mixed zone, where players speak to reporters, and grabbed selfies with Max Gradel or asked him to sign their shirts. Sebastien Haller and Odilon Kossounou flashed their medals for the cameras. Oumar Diakite, Christian Kouame and Jean-Phillippe Krasso walked through with a speaker blasting music. The group of children running around the centre circle briefly disappeared to follow the team bus but came charging back minutes later.

At the same venue three weeks ago, Ivory Coast fans were crying in the stands following a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea. It was the biggest defeat they have ever suffered at home and they were dangerously close to being eliminated from the competition. With a little bit of luck and help from Morocco, the Ivory Coast survived. Now they are champions for the first time since 2015.

“It’s more than a fairytale,” Emerse Fae, who is still officially only the interim head coach, said. “It’s difficult for me to realise what I’m going through. When I think about all the hard times we went through it’s great and we are lucky. We have enjoyed miracles.”

Diakite had a different view of their incredible achievement.

“We were like ghosts in this tournament, but it’s not possible to die twice.”

During the journey to Ebimpe, which is where the final was held, there was a van tilted sideways and stuck in a ditch with five people trying to push it out. Cars were gridlocked on the main motorway leading to the ground which was forcing drivers to seek alternative routes and the tricky terrain had claimed a victim. These tight back roads which weaved through market stalls were uneven, rocky and littered with large wooden logs. Kids ran around screaming and two goats appeared in the street while men smoking shisha pipes watched on nearby, unmoved.

The chaotic scenes neatly mirrored Ivory Coast’s path to the final. They beat Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in their opening game but lost their next two matches. Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked as head coach before they qualified for the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides. Fae took charge but the Ivorian Football Federation attempted, and failed, to lure Herve Renard from France’s women’s team for the rest of the competition. Renard led the Ivory Coast to glory in the 2015 AFCON final when they beat Ghana on penalties.

Emerse Fae (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Fae had never taken charge of a senior side before and his first game was against the defending champions Senegal. When Habib Diallo converted Sadio Mane’s cross in the fourth minute, Fae looked out of his depth. However, the former Reading and Nantes defender, who celebrated his 40th birthday on the day he replaced Gasset, tweaked his tactics and inspired a memorable victory.

What happened in the quarter-final against Mali defied belief. They played the majority of the game with 10 men after Kossounou was sent off and went 1-0 down. Simon Adingra equalised before Diakite scored the winner in the 122nd minute. The 20-year-old picked up a second yellow card for over-celebrating and was suspended for the semi-final. In that game, they dominated DR Congo but only secured a 1-0 victory.

Ivory Coast smothered Nigeria during the first 30 minutes of the final only to concede first when William Troost-Ekong headed the ball past Yahia Fofana. This side does not wake up until they are faced with some kind of adversity and love the thrill of a dramatic comeback.

Franck Kessie equalised and Sebastien Haller, 18 months after undergoing surgery and multiple rounds of chemotherapy to remove a testicular tumour, poked Adingra’s cross past Stanley Nwabali to put Ivory Coast ahead. Apart from Kelechi Iheanacho’s shot which was blocked, Nigeria never looked capable of pulling off the kind of freak comeback Ivory Coast have trademarked.

Nigeria’s head coach Jose Peseiro admitted his team were “nervous.”

“Our team had a fantastic tournament, but today we didn’t show our level,” Peseiro said. “It is the truth. It was not the same collective performance like we did up until now. You lose many balls, it’s not a tactical problem. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel my players were comfortable today.

Orange and green flares were popping up in different sections of the crowd as full-time approached while 57,000 people started chanting Victor Osimhen’s name — Nigeria’s forward was being taunted for failing to make an impact. Osimhen played an important role for Nigeria as they reached the final, but one goal in seven appearances is a disappointing return for the men’s African Footballer of the Year.

Haller (Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images)

Everybody, apart from a small pocket of Nigeria fans, danced to Coup de Marteau by Tam Sir — Ivory Coast’s unofficial anthem — when the game finished.

Haller squeezed his wife and three young children. Seko Fofana consoled his former Udinese team-mate Troost-Ekong. Diakite ran around the pitch while a group of photographers tried to keep up with him. Former Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba and ex-Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony joined the celebrations too. Gradel lifted the trophy with the country’s 82-year-old president Alassane Ouattara, who was jumped on by all of the players.

“I cannot tell you my joy,” Fae said. “I’m so happy. I’m overwhelmed. I was dreaming to win AFCON as a player but I was not able to do it. Now I’ve had the opportunity to do it as a coach.

“The entire competition was extraordinary. There was a lot of suspense and spectacle. Ivory Coast should be proud of its AFCON.”

It is a fitting end to a thrilling tournament that the host nation, who flirted with disaster, won. The party in Abidjan is just getting started.

(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

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