Humiliation to Glory: Ivory Coast’s miraculous AFCON triumph

On 22 January 2024, the Ivory Coast national football team were thrashed 4–0 by Equatorial Guinea in the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in their capital Abidjan, their biggest ever defeat on home soil. With fans pictured sobbing in the stands in the aftermath, assuming they had been eliminated, the Ivorian Football Federation hastily fired the Elephants’ manager Jean-Louis Gasset and hung their heads in shame following an embarrassing campaign as hosts.

Three weeks later, at the very same stadium, the team lifted the Afcon trophy as champions. Calling Côte d’Ivoire’s route to their first Afcon title since 2015 ‘unconventional’ would be an understatement. So, what on earth happened?

Calling Côte d’Ivoire’s route to their first Afcon title since 2015 ‘unconventional’ would be an understatement. So, what on earth happened?

Eyebrows had already been raised before the tournament even began, with Gasset’s squad selection baffling many. Former Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha, arguably one of the country’s finest players, was left out of the team entirely despite enjoying a fine season with Galatasaray, a decision criticised by former Ivory Coast internationals such as Sol Bamba. To add insult to injury, called up instead was 36-year-old winger Max Gradel, who has managed just one goal in 16 appearances for Turkish club Gaziantep this season.

Though the Ivorians opened the tournament with a 2–0 win over Guinea-Bissau, they followed this up with a poor showing against Nigeria. While their home fans roared them on, the hosts were downed by a penalty from the Super Eagles’ William Troost-Ekong, having failed to create many clear-cut chances throughout the game despite enjoying lengthy periods of possession. It was their first ever defeat to Nigeria on home soil, and meant they were the first host nation to lose an Afcon group game in over twelve years.

Their chances of qualifying for the knockout stage therefore hung in the balance, requiring a win against Equatorial Guinea, ranked 88th worldwide, to go through as one of the top two teams in the group. Instead, the Ivorians were thrashed indiscriminately, with goals coming from Nsue, Ganet and Buyla, all of whom play in the third division of the Spanish league.

On the brink of an early exit and relying on unlikely results in other groups to go their way to have a chance of qualifying as one of the better-ranked third-placed teams, the abject humiliation of their performance as hosts, and a trouncing by a side ranked 40 places below them by FIFA, led to Gasset being swiftly sacked the following day.

Except… they had not been eliminated. Morocco’s win over Zambia two days later meant that they snuck through to the knockout stages by the thinnest of margins – a single point!

they snuck through to the knockout stages by the thinnest of margins – a single point!

The Ivorian Football Federation were now faced with a dilemma. No country had ever sacked its manager mid-tournament despite making it through to the knockout stages. Who was to replace Gasset?

Initially, the IFF made an unheard-of attempt to bring in a manager on loan. Hervé Renard, the manager of the French women’s team, had previously led the Elephants to Afcon glory in 2015, and was touted for a possible return for the rest of the tournament… only for the French Football Federation to deny the request. With this attempt failing, the IFF were left with little choice but to appoint Gasset’s assistant, former Reading midfielder and ex-Ivory Coast international Emerse Fae, as interim boss for the rest of the campaign, and simply hope for the best.

His first game was the greatest possible test a first-time manager could have – a round-of-16 date with defending champions Senegal, brimming with talent through the likes of Liverpool legend Sadio Mané and Tottenham star Pape Matar Sarr. As Habib Diallo gave Senegal the lead in just the fourth minute from a Mané cross, the Elephants’ chances were looking slim; yet, they grew into the game, and were rewarded for their efforts with a spot-kick in the 86th-minute, dispatched excellently by Franck Kessié. Defending for all their might throughout extra-time, the game was taken to penalties; it was Kessié again who stepped up, miraculously sending the hosts into a quarter-final showdown with Mali.

What happened next was a stunning comeback of even greater proportions. Playing most of the game with 10 men after a sending-off for Kossounou, Ivory Coast once again fell behind in the 71st-minute, only for their Brighton winger Simon Adingra to seize a great equaliser right in stoppage time. All the drama of the tournament so far was eclipsed during another nervy extra-time period, with Oumar Diakité completing the Ivorians’ turnaround in the very last minute of extra-time.

What followed was a comfortable 1–0 semi-final victory against the DRC. And just like that, 40-year-old Fae, in just his fourth game as a manager, had defied all expectations thus far, and had the opportunity to win his country the continent’s most prestigious trophy.

just like that, 40-year-old Fae… had the opportunity to win his country the continent’s most prestigious trophy

The final was set, with a date with Nigeria booked for 11 February in the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan, the same site where Nigeria had coolly defeated them in the group stage just a couple weeks prior. And the final looked to be going the same way as Troost-Ekong once again gave Nigeria the lead in the 38th minute. Yet, what I presume was an inspired team-talk from Fae led to yet another turnaround for the remarkable hosts; Kessié equalised from a corner in the 62nd minute, and, with nine minutes to go on the clock, Sebastian Haller flicked Adingra’s cross into the net, a lead that they maintained until the full-time whistle.

The story was particularly important for Haller, who scored the winner; the Borussia Dortmund striker was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July 2022, and went through six months of surgery and chemotherapy, finally making his return to football in January 2023; a year later, against all the odds, he had scored the winning goal to win his country the Africa Cup of Nations.

Much praise ought to go to Fae, who excellently navigated his way through his inexperience with excellent tactical decisions; he made the inspired decision to bring back Hull City midfielder Jean-Michel Seri to the starting 11, as well as shrewdly managing Haller’s and Nicolas Pépé’s returns from injury. Not a bad start to life as a football manager.

A controversial squad, a humiliating defeat, and mid-tournament sacking – and yet, Ivory Coast had seized their third Afcon title. It was a journey the Athletic deemed “the most chaotic in international football history”. And rightfully so. We may never see an international campaign quite like theirs ever again.

Image Credit: US Department of State via Flickr

Image Description: Fans cheer during the Côte d’Ivoire-Equatorial Guinea Men’s Africa Cup of Nations match in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, January 22, 2024.