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Haller becomes Ivory Coast ‘fulcrum’ in time for AFCON glory

The Ivory Coast have had to wait to enjoy Sébastien Haller‘s impact at international level, but after overcoming his cancer diagnosis and recent injury problems, the striker is finally leaving his mark at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Wednesday’s AFCON semifinal victory over the Democratic Republic of Congo was the perfect occasion for the Borussia Dortmund striker to finally leave his mark for the hosts, scoring the only goal of the game in the 65th minute to send the West Africans through to Sunday’s final against Nigeria.

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Despite his struggles at club level this season — where Haller has made just four Bundesliga starts and failed to score — it was a timely reminder of just what the 29-year-old has to offer, and why he may yet fire the unlikeliest of finalist to a third ever AFCON crown.

“You saw that he’s our fulcrum,” Ivory Coast midfielder Jean-Michael Seri told ESPN. “He’s our striker, he’s so efficient, and he doesn’t need two or three chances to put it away.

“He proved just how much he brings us, and how much good he does for the team. We knew that with our strong play, we’d score eventually, but exactly when, we weren’t sure [until Haller struck].”

It’s just over 18 months since Haller was first diagnosed with the testicular cancer that halted his career for the first half of the 2022-23 season, while his Nations Cup campaign has also been a slow burner after the forward arrived to camp with an ankle injury that threatened his participation altogether.

Despite his decisive acrobatic intervention against the Congolese, Haller has struggled to impose himself during the competition, having been used predominantly as a substitute, while looking rusty and far short of match fitness.

“I had this injury since December 19, but every day since I’ve worked to come back as quickly as possible: healing, resting, doing everything,” he told ESPN. “The only secret I have is this work, not giving up.

“It hasn’t been easy, but [the victory] was the payoff for all of those efforts. Of course, I wasn’t the only person who did this, but you have to keep believing and making sacrifices.

“Of course, it’s difficult, and physically not straightforward, but as a team, we’re coming from so far away, and while we’re progressing each day, it isn’t easy to manage.”

The hosts were on the brink of elimination after taking just three points from their group-stage matches, including a devastating 4-0 defeat by lowly Equatorial Guinea.

However, despite replacing head coach Jean-Louis Gasset with his assistant Emerse Fae, they qualified for the knockouts as one of the top four ranked third-placed teams, before eliminating holders Senegal on penalties in the round of 16.

A rollercoaster quarterfinal victory over Mali followed, with the 10-men Ivorians equalising in the 90th minute before netting a 120th-minute winner, and Wednesday’s victory over the Congolese now sends the Elephants through to Sunday’s final with Nigeria.

Only one year on from returning to action following cancer treatment and surgery, Haller can now conclude his latest comeback with continental glory.

“What we’re all hoping for, what we’re all dreaming of, is victory in the final,” he concluded. “We’ll rest, we’ll heal, and we’ll look ahead at how to tackle it.

“We’ve got one more match ahead, and of course it won’t be easy, but it’s up to us to get the victory.”

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