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Haller the hero as Ivory Coast seal improbable Afcon win against Nigeria

It turns out the zombie team really couldn’t be killed after all. The dead kid doesn’t fear the knife. Ghosts don’t feel pain. There was no way to prevent Ivory Coast from winning the Africa Cup of Nations for the third time. League formats excepted, no side had ever won a major tournament after losing twice, but it was more than those defeats by Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea in the group phase. Three times in the knockouts they were behind and each time Emerse Faé’s side came back to prevail. Nobody could pretend that this Ivory Coast team is one of the great sides, but this was one of the great tournament wins.

No one would set out to win a tournament this way, qualifying from the group as the fourth of four best third-placed sides, sacking the coach, doing – at least if almost every player interview since is to be believed – a lot of looking in the mirror. But maybe this is the most fun way to win, amid chaos and disbelieving laughter and an inextinguishable will.

Yet there had been an odd sense that Ivory Coast’s win over DR Congo in the semi-final had ended the magic. There had been no revenant miracle about it; just an efficient midfield display. Faé, the stand-in coach appointed after the group stage, had called for just such a performance but, having got it, having not needed a preposterous late equaliser as he had in the previous two rounds, the hilarious sense that every second still in the competition was a bonus came to an end.

Suddenly there was expectation again – as there had been in the group stage, when Ivory Coast lost twice but somehow still squeaked through as one of the best third-placed sides.

But there was also gratitude. A huge banner was unfurled before kick-off thanking the players (it was later replaced by an enormous banner showing an “elephant commando” – an extremely hench and apparently cheery pachyderm, clad in green combats, an orange vest and a natty cap). It’s impossible to place a value on such things and it will be a long time before anybody can calculate whether the $1bn-plus spent on the tournament and related infrastructure has been a net positive.

However what is true is that the last two weeks have, as the president Alassane Ouattara demanded, presented an image of unity, 13 years after the end of the civil war and that, for most people, Ivory Coast’s implausible run to the final has been the most enormous fun. The scenes after Wednesday’s semi-final, with the streets frothing in orange-and-white celebration, will never be forgotten.

The atmosphere at the start of the final was extraordinary, all but a tiny green-and-white splodge of the stadium clad in orange, desperately willing on the hosts. Every half-chance of a half-chance was roared and, for the first time since the group stage, Ivory Coast began a game the better. Even against DR Congo in the semi they had been tentative until the first cooling break.

But although they had corners, slung crosses across the box and generated a series of half-chances, it wasn’t until the 34th minute that they created a serious opportunity, Franck Kessié finding Simon Adingra in space on the left side of the box. His shot, though, was beaten away by Stanley Nwabali and there was no Ivorian player to touch in the rebound.

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And, inevitably, having wasted so much of the early momentum, Ivory Coast conceded to Nigeria’s first corner. It was hardly a surprise if Nigeria began cautiously; if ever there was an occasion to suck the life out of the game and quieten the home fans, it was this. But suddenly Alex Iwobi seized on a loose ball and played in Zaidu Sanusi. His touch was uncertain on a poor surface but he did enough to win the corner. And when Samuel Chukwueze, slightly surprisingly recalled for Moses Simon, flicked on Ademola Lookman’s subsequent delivery, sending the ball looping into the air, William Troost-Ekong powered in his fourth goal of the tournament.

That was the first goal scored in any of the five finals in which Ivory Coast have played, and seemed to place Nigeria in a glorious position. They are good defensively anyway ­– only two goals conceded in their six previous games at the tournament – but also they are managed by the man José Mourinho describes as his best friend in football, José Peseiro. It’s easy to see why: they share a certain swagger, an unapologetic pragmatism. But trying to spoil and hold a lead in the classic Mourinho manner doesn’t really work in the modern game.

Slowly the Ivorian pressure was ramped up. Calvin Bassey blocked a goalbound Gradel shot. Seko Fofana was denied by Nwabali. And then, on 62 minutes, Kessié headed in Adingra’s corner. Nigeria couldn’t change gear. The only question was when the winner would come. It arrived on 81 minutes as Adingra’s cross was touched in by Sébastien Haller.

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