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AFCON: Ivory Coast's Sebastien Haller delivers fairy-tale ending

Arguably one of the most entertaining Africa Cup of Nations in living memory received a fairy-tale finish on Sunday night, as hosts Ivory Coast lifted the trophy.

The Elephants came from behind to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final in Abidjan, capping a tournament of comebacks for the hosts, who appeared to be all but eliminated after the group stage, while late goals and drama also epitomised their progress through the knockout rounds.

Ivory Coast even saw a change in manager during the tournament, with Emerse Fae replacing Jean-Louis Gasset after an underwhelming group stage, but perhaps the star of the hosts' campaign was Sebastien Haller.

French-born Haller scored the winning goal in both their semi-final success over DR Congo and the final itself against Nigeria to cap what has been an extraordinary couple of years for the Borussia Dortmund forward.

Football

From West Ham struggles to Ajax delight 

Premier League fans will remember former France under-21 international Haller for a rather underwhelming 18-month spell with West Ham, as after joining for a club-record fee from Eintracht Frankfurt in July 2019 he scored just 10 goals across 48 matches in the English top-flight.

A move to Ajax for less than half of what West Ham paid for him followed for Haller in January 2021 and he rediscovered his scoring touch in Amsterdam, firing in 34 goals during the 2021/22 season.

Haller lifted back-to-back Eredivisie titles during his time with Ajax and a return to one of Europe's top-five leagues seemed inevitable, with Dortmund taking the plunge during the summer of 2022.

The comeback of all comebacks 

Haller joined Dortmund in July 2022, but later that month he withdrew from the club's pre-season training camp in Switzerland and it was announced that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

At just 28 and in the prime of his career, this would have come as a major shock for Haller and his family and he subsequently underwent two operations and multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

Remarkably and in a great testament to his fitness and character, Haller was able to return to action with Dortmund in January 2023, just six months after his original diagnosis, and he scored the following month in a Bundesliga victory over Freiburg.

Haller went on to score nine times over the second half of the season with Dortmund and he has continued to feature regularly for BVB this term, although he went into AFCON having not scored a club goal since August.

The fairy-tale ending in Abidjan

After struggling to find the back of the net for Dortmund over the first half of the season, Haller's mere participation at AFCON was in doubt during the build-up to the tournament due to an ankle injury.

The 29-year-old did not feature during the group stage and was only able to play a bit-part role as Ivory Coast edged past defending champions Senegal and Mali in their opening two knockout matches.

Haller finally earned his first start of the tournament in the semi-final against DR Congo, where he justified his selection by scoring the game's only goal.

Things got even better for Haller in the final as, after Franck Kessie cancelled out William Troost-Ekong's opener for Nigeria, the forward was able to turn home Simon Adingra's cross with nine minutes remaining to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Given what Haller has been through over the last two years, this really was the fairy-tale ending and he was understandably full of emotion after leading his country to their third AFCON title.

"We dreamed of this moment so many times," Haller told reporters after taking a moment to compose himself. 

"We hoped to get to this point and once again the match wasn't an easy one. The joyous scenes we see now, what's happening in the country, they deserve it too. I really hope it does a lot of people good."

What next for Haller?

Unlike after a World Cup or European Championship, players at AFCON do not have much time to reflect on the tournament, as the vast majority will have to almost immediately turn their attention back to club matters.

Dortmund travel to Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga next Saturday and it is possible that Haller will be involved in that match where BVB are priced at 23/20 to secure the win.

Haller will also hope to feature when Dortmund travel to Eindhoven to take on PSV in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie on Tuesday 20th February.

The former Auxerre youngster is yet to score in the UCL this season and he is 500/1 to end as the competition's leading scorer.  If he were to achieve that feat then that may even eclipse his efforts at AFCON.

Odds displayed were correct at the time of writing and subject to fluctuation.

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