EletiofeSebastien Haller, a year after beating cancer, wins AFCON...

Sebastien Haller, a year after beating cancer, wins AFCON for Ivory Coast, completing ultimate comeback story

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Henry Bushnell

Ivory Coast 's Sebastien Haller celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Nigeria and Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast ‘s Sebastien Haller celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Nigeria and Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Two comeback stories coalesced into one fairytale Sunday at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Just a few weeks ago, Ivory Coast was all but out of the tournament, careening toward nationwide disappointment.

And just over a year ago, its top striker, Sebastien Haller, was all but out of soccer, battling cancer.

On Sunday in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, Haller scored a brilliant 81st-minute goal to win the continental title for his mother’s homeland.

And as an entire orange-clad stadium bounced, deliriously, legends were born.

Ivory Coast’s Éléphants came back from a goal down to beat Nigeria, 2-1, and complete a remarkable turnaround. Back in the group stage, they’d been so calamitously bad that they’d fired their coach, as if eliminated. A 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea, the world’s 152nd-most populous country, seemed to dump them out of the tournament.

But they snuck into the knockout rounds, as the fourth of four third-place group finishers. And there, on home soil, they found AFCON magic.

“At the beginning, we had a team that didn’t look like a team,” interim coach Emerse Fae, a 40-year-old who stumbled into his first head-coaching job, said. “We had to do a lot, to change what was not going right with the team.”

They trailed Senegal, an African soccer giant, with 10 minutes remaining in the Round of 16. But Franck Kessié rose to the moment, equalized, and Ivory Coast won on penalties.

Five days later, down 1-0 to Mali in stoppage time, Simon 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.

By then, the run was already improbable — and that was before Haller truly stepped on stage.

Born in France to a French father and Ivorian mother, Haller rose slowly through European football. In 2020, while struggling at West Ham, he committed his international future to Ivory Coast. In 2021, he went to Ajax, where he starred, and earned a move to Borussia Dortmund. He was a striker on the rise. Then came the diagnosis.

In July of 2022, doctors found a tumor on his testicle. It was a “nightmare,” his wife, Priscilla, would later say. Haller underwent surgery to remove the cancerous testicle. He soon began chemotherapy.

But he never lost sight of soccer. He even did simple exercises while stuck in the hospital. Six months, two operations and multiple chemo cycles later, he was back in training, and eventually playing for Dortmund, with “F*CK CANCER” inscribed on his cleats.

Thirteen months after that, he scored a second-half winner in the AFCON semifinals. An ankle injury had kept him out of the group stage. His return boosted a suddenly buoyant team, and lifted it into the final. Millions of Ivorians burst with joy.

And on Sunday, he capped a wild, nonsensical, beautiful tournament in style. Nigeria took a first half lead. Kessié brought Ivory Coast level. Then Haller wrote the almost-unbelievable final chapter.

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