EletiofeAt AFCON, Ivory Coast sacks its coach, then stuns...

At AFCON, Ivory Coast sacks its coach, then stuns its way through soccer’s wildest tournament

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TOPSHOT - Ivory Coast's forward #14 Oumar Diakite (C) takes his jersey off as he celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 quarter-final football match between Mali and Ivory Coast at the Stade de la Paix in Bouake on February 3, 2024. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP) (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

TOPSHOT – Ivory Coast’s forward #14 Oumar Diakite (C) takes his jersey off as he celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s second goal during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 quarter-final football match between Mali and Ivory Coast at the Stade de la Paix in Bouake on February 3, 2024. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP) (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Ivory Coast’s AFCON dream was dying, slowly and painfully on Saturday, just as it already had 12 days before. The sun had set on Bouaké, the country’s second-largest city, and on the Ivorian national team’s Africa Cup of Nations run. They were down a man and a goal to Mali in the quarterfinals. Stoppage time neared. And that’s when Simon Adingra pounced.

This, it seems, is when Les Éléphants always pounce. It was the third time in two weeks they stumbled toward elimination, toward embarrassment, then survived. They sacked their coach after a 4-0 group-stage loss to Equatorial Guinea. They trailed Senegal, an African soccer giant, with 10 minutes remaining in the Round of 16.

But they have tapped into magic on home soil, as the hosts of this biennial continental championship.

And they have tapped into the innate madness of the maddest soccer tournament in the world.

They equalized against Senegal, then won on penalties Monday. Five days later, Adingra gave them life and 30 minutes of extra time. And in the 32nd of those 30 minutes — in the second minute of one added on — Oumar Diakité flicked in a stunning winner.

The stadium erupted. The entire country erupted. Diakité ripped off his shirt, earning a second yellow card, reducing his team to nine men. Nobody cared.

They hugged and ran aimlessly. They prayed and jumped deliriously. They cried and felt things they’d surely never felt before.

At the final whistle, Ivorian players and staff sped onto the field. Malian opponents surrounded the referee, and instigated a shoving match. Mali coach Éric Chelle crouched and wiped away tears, as an assistant doused the back of his boiling neck with water.

And all around them, delirium reigned. Glorious delirium.

Welcome to AFCON.

There is nothing quite like it, this summit of a soccer-crazed continent, this meeting of countless different religions, races and cultures, all connected by a silly little ball and a beautiful game.

Twenty-four teams came to the Ivory Coast in January. Dozens of European-based stars traveled south to take part. And just about none of them performed as expected. Upsets have become the norm. “The Africa Cup of Nations has its own logic,” as the saying goes. But still, the 2024 edition has felt consistently illogical.

On the first full day of the tournament, Equatorial Guinea held Nigeria; Mozambique drew (and nearly beat) Egypt; Cape Verde took down Ghana.

Throughout group play, World Cup mainstays stumbled. Namibia topped Tunisia. Mauritania beat Algeria, which crashed out without a single win. Ghana also exited without two points.

By the quarterfinals, all five 2022 World Cup participants and all eight 2021 AFCON quarterfinalists had been eliminated — a first in major tournament history.

And then there were the hosts, Ivory Coast.

A 2-0 win on opening day calmed Ivorian nerves. The atmosphere around the country felt festive. But a 1-0 loss to Nigeria dampened it. Then on Matchday 3, a simple task turned into a nightmare. Ivory Coast didn’t even have to beat Equatorial Guinea, the world’s 152nd-most populous country, to advance to the knockouts; it simply had to draw. But it conceded a goal before halftime; then another in the 73rd minute; then again in the 75th, and yet again in the 88th.

Two days after their humiliating defeat, the Ivorian Football Federation fired head coach Jean-Louis Gasset, just as any favorite would after a calamitous third-place group finish.

What made this situation unique, though, was that, technically, the Elephants hadn’t been eliminated.

AFCON’s forgiving format granted hope. Four of six third-place teams would advance to the Round of 16. The Ivorians, with three points and a minus-3 goal differential, needed two of the remaining five groups to produce a third-place finisher worse than them — which seemed unlikely, until Mozambique scored twice in stoppage time to shock Ghana, leaving those two Group B teams stranded on two points.

So the Ivorians — the team, the people, their collective dream — needed one more helping hand.

They perked up the following day when Cameroon, on one point in Group C, went down 2-1 to The Gambia in the 85th minute; then sunk as Cameroon came back to win 3-2.

They held onto hope for one more day, eyeing Group E — but Mali couldn’t find a goal against Namibia, and both advanced, along with South Africa, ahead of the hosts.

Group F offered one last chance. Fans gathered for watch parties, admirably optimistic. And finally, when a lone Morocco goal left Zambia and Tanzania on two points apiece, those fans spilled out into the streets of Abidjan, jubilant.

Five days later, under a caretaker coach, their team rallied to upset Senegal.

Five days after that, a first-half red card turned a quarterfinal against Mali into an uphill battle. In the 76th minute, Dorgeles Nene — a Malian midfielder with Ivorian roots — made the hill a mountain.

But inside the Stade Bouaké, the drums kept beating. The most dedicated of the 40,000 fans kept dancing. Their team rose to this latest challenge, then into the semifinals, where they’ll meet the Democratic Republic of Congo, a fellow underdog. And the Ivorian dream is very much alive.

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