Sebastien Haller’s unorthodox 65th-minute volley has booked Ivory Coast an unlikely meeting with Nigeria in the AFCON final after beating DR Congo 1-0 at Ebimpe Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night.
The hosts have the chance to win the tournament on home soil – and become the first team to do so since Egypt in 2006 – just over two weeks after they sacked manager Jean-Louis Grasset after an unimpressive group stage.
Les Elephants had assumed that after finishing third in their group, and falling to lacklustre defeats against Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, they were destined to crash out of the competition.
Instead, the team were spared and sent through as the strongest third-placed side.
Since managed by interim head coach Emerse Fae, the side have claimed victory against Senegal on penalties in the round of 16, and a 2-1 win against Mali in the quarter-finals.
Sebastien Haller’s unusual volley proved to difference for Ivory Coast against DR Congo
The Borussia Dortmund star pulled down Max Gradel’s cross in unorthodox fashion to book his nation’s spot in the AFCON final on Sunday
Haller was making his first start in the tournament after recovering from an ankle injury, and had previously missed a header at close range in the goalless first-half.
But fortune was on his side when Max Gradel lofted a cross from the dead-ball line to the right of goal into the centre of the box – only for Haller to catch the ball with a freakish touch almost off his right ankle.
The shot looped well out of Lionel M’Pasi’s grasp, landing behind the Congolese goalkeeper in the back of the net.
On the touchline, Fae celebrated as if he knew the goal was the winner – and such was Ivorian dominance that Sebastien Desabre’s side could offer no response.
‘We are happy, we’re really moved. It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea,’ said Fae after the final whistle.
‘It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own AFCON.’
Haller’s match-winning strike comes just 599 days after he first received his diagnosis of testicular cancer weeks after joining Borussia Dortumund from Ajax in the summer of 2022.
Lionel M’pasi was unable to keep the chipped shot out of the back of his net in the semi-final
Just two weeks ago, the host nation’s chances of qualifying from the group stages looked grim
But despite sacking manager Jean-Louis Grasset, Les Elephants have progressed to contest the trophy
The 29-year-old underwent chemotheraphy and two operations at the end of that year, before returning to action at the Bundesliga club in January 2023.
A month later, Haller scored his first goal back on World Cancer Day as Dortmund beat Freiburg 5-1.
The player previously described chemotherapy as being ‘like a game’ due to the importance of keeping a positive mindset.
‘I am someone who’s trying to be positive all the time,’ Haller said in 2023. ‘I have this mindset that I want to be able to get through things. I was putting the bad thoughts away. “Hospital? Yeah, let’s go.”
‘You have the chemo and every day you have this liquid in your body and you’re just focused – like a game.
‘You have five days that are s***. But, OK, you are not alone. Seventy-two hours (of feeling unwell), and then it will be OK for two weeks.
‘You are thinking about your family and seeing your family, resting and enjoying it. I kept those ideas in my mind.’
Haller’s strike comes in his second-ever AFCON tournament after switching his allegiance to Ivory Coast from France in 2020.
DR Congo were unable to overturn the hosts’ dominance in Abidjan on Wednesday evening
Head coach Emerse Fae previously served as Grasset’s assistant before taking the helm
Franck Kessie has stressed the importance of his side needing to ‘keep believing’ in reaching the final
Midfielder Franck Kessie – who was named man of the match – stressed that belief was critical to Ivory Coast’s surprise success on home soil.
‘As long as you still have a five or 10 percent chance you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful,’ Kessie told reporters. ‘After the Morocco result we knew we had qualified and that changed everything.
‘It gave us the strength we needed, it boosted us. We knew we couldn’t do worse than in the first round.
‘We need to keep going like this because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up.’