Comeback kid Haller 'showed incredible mental strength' at AFCON



Ivory Coast's Africa Cup of Nations hero Sébastien Haller was full of self-doubt that he could have a part to play in the Elephants' campaign on home soil, in the run-up to his match-winning display against Nigeria in Sunday's final, according to teammate Seko Fofana.

Borussia Dortmund's Haller scored an 81st-minute winner to secure the West Africans' third title at the Stade Alassane Ouattara-Ebimpé, after Franck Kessié had cancelled out William Troost-Ekong's opener for the Super Eagles.

Having also scored the winner against the Democratic Republic of Congo in the semifinal, Haller ended the tournament as the champions' hero and was duly front and centre of the team's trophy parade through the centre of Abidjan on Monday.

However, his tournament started slowly, with teammate Fofana revealing that Haller, who missed 18 months in 2022/23 while receiving cancer treatment, doubted he'd be able to make his mark at the AFCON after then suffering an ankle injury in December.

"I send a thought to Seb Haller," Fofana told ESPN. "It hasn't been easy for him. He didn't truly believe [that he could do] this, as he was just coming back from such a serious injury. However, he has shown an incredible mental strength for us."

Sebastien Haller reverently touches the Africa Cup of Nations trophy after leading Ivory Coast to the title, less than two years after a testicular cancer diagnosis and a string of recent injuries. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images
Sebastien Haller reverently touches the Africa Cup of Nations trophy after leading Ivory Coast to the title, less than two years after a testicular cancer diagnosis and a string of recent injuries. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

Fofana also believes that Haller's struggles with injury in recent months, and his tenacious comeback from testicular cancer following his diagnosis in July 2022, have proved inspirational in fuelling squad unity, which allowed the Elephants to overcome adversity, like their coach being sacked in the group stage, to clinch the continent's grandest prize.

"He was a benefit to others in the team, always giving something else to this group," Fofana continued. "[Consequently] we're now a unit, a collective, and we can be very happy about it."

Even before injury struck for Haller on December 19, he'd endured a sluggish start to the season for Dortmund, failing to score in 13 appearances across the Bundesliga and the Champions League.

He didn't see any game time for the hosts during their group-stage campaign as he worked his way back to full fitness, and was only introduced from the bench in both Last 16 and quarterfinal victories over Senegal and Mali respectively.

While Haller grew into taking a starting role in the team, the likes of Ibrahim Sangaré, Jonathan Bamba, Nicolas Pépé and Jérémie Boga all slipped in influence as interim head coach Emerse Faé shuffled his pack to try and find the best balance to his team.

"Those players still contributed so much on the mental side of things," Fofana continued. "They were always encouraging us, supporting us. They were always professional in training, which allowed us to progress each week, and ultimately have the success we enjoyed."

Colin Udoh breaks down Ivory Coast's AFCON win
Colin Udoh breaks down Ivory Coast's 2-1 win over Nigeria to win the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Ivory Coast's mental strength and bounceback-ability was at the heart of the Elephants' revival following Jean Louis Gasset's dismissal and the appointment of Faé, with the hosts having only taken three points - with a minus three goal difference - from their group-stage fixtures.

For Fofana, the example set by the resilient Haller and other senior heads within the squad was directly responsible for the come-from-behind triumphs against Senegal, Mali and Nigeria.

"We came back from so far away, had to go through all of that, and it's made us stronger," Fofana added. "It's demonstrated our mental strength. We came back every time, sometimes we lost a player, but we always came back stronger."

Faé also believes that Haller capping off the Elephants' resurrection with the winner against Nigeria was the perfect summation of the new-found conviction fostered within the camp during the campaign.

"Our main achievement is that we proved our mental strength," he told ESPN. "To pick yourself up from where we were, you need mentality and character. We showed we have both.

"The main thing to take away is that the Cote d'Ivoire now have the mentality and the character of Elephants."

Keywords: Ivory Coast AFCON Africa Cup of Nations

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