Two second-half goals from Franck Kessie and Sébastien Haller cancelled out William Troost-Ekong’s first-half opener as hosts Ivory Coast beat Nigeria 2-1 to win the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil on Sunday.
After a disastrous group stage that almost saw the Elephants eliminated and only managed to qualify after picking the last best losers slot, with coach Jean-Louis Gasset sacked, it was all worth it for a night that will live long in the memory of Ivorians.
The victory means the Elephants have won the AFCON for the third time, having won it before in 1992 and 2015.
On their part, the Eagles were hoping to win the trophy for the fourth time after winning it in 1980, 1994, and 2013.
Sunday’s meeting was the 29th time both sides have came up against each other, with Nigeria winning nine and losing 10 of the games.
Coach Jose Peseiro made two changes to the side that defeated South Africa in the semi-finals, with Porto left-back Zaidu Sanusi returning to the starting XI, and AC Milan winger Samuel Chukwueze starting ahead of Moses Simon.
The hosts had the first chance of the game just six minutes into the encounter as Simon Adingra’s delicate cross across goal evaded the outstretched legs of striker Sébastien Haller.
The Elephants continued to dominate possession, forcing Peseiro’s men into making mistakes and giving away cheap free-kicks.
Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was tested in the 14th minute as Seko Fofana unleashed a fierce shot, but the 27-year-old goalkeeper was up to the task.
Just 18 minutes into the final clash at the Stade Alassane Ouattara, tempers rose to a fever pitch, with Victor Osimhen confronting Evan Ndicka after the defender looked to have elbowed the Napoli striker.
A few seconds later, the game was halted again after Mauritania referee Beida Dahane failed to award a free kick to Nigeria following a foul on Ademola Lookman and Peseiro flashed a yellow card after he vehemently protested the officiating.
Afterwards, there was a nervy moment in the 20th minute as Zaidu almost gave away possession in a dangerous position, but Nwabali rushed out of his post to put the ball into safety, leading to a corner kick for the men in orange.
Adingra almost scored a spectacular volley from the resulting corner, but saw his shot hit the side net.
Ivory Coast then almost opened the scoring in the 34th minute, with Franck Kessie fine pass finding Adingra, whose shot caused no problem for Nwabali.
After surviving the early onslaught from the hosts, the Eagles launched their first attack of the game, with Alex Iwobi finding Zaidu, but the defender’s shot was blocked by Odilon Kossounou inside the box, giving Nigeria their first corner kick of the game.
Ademola Lookman took the resulting set piece, and William Troost-Ekong rose the highest to nod home in the 38th minute, his third of the tournament.
The Eagles became more confident after Troost-Ekong’s goal and began to control proceedings, with the Ivorians chasing the balls.
There was an off-the-ball incident between Zaidu and Serge Aurier with the Ivorian captain obstructing the Nigerian as he made a run for an Iwobi pass but the referee paid no attention to it despite pleads from the Eagles
The Ivorians made their intentions known immediately after the start of the second half, as they came out attacking the Eagles with everything in their arsenal.
Nwabali and Aurier were engaged in a war of words as tension heightened, with both players cautioned by the referee.
Peseiro made a quick substitution, sending Simon on to replace Chukwueze just 11 minutes into the second half.
Ivory Coast continued to pressurise the Eagles, who sat too deep, allowing the hosts to dictate play.
The pressure paid off in the 62nd minute as Kossounou’s shot was parried for a corner. Kessie then nodded home Adingra’s cross from the flag.
Adingra, who was named Man of The Match, continued to torment the Eagles’ defence and the youngster produced another fine cross in the 81st minute, which was superbly turned into the Eagles’ net by Haller to put Ivory Coast ahead.
Despite falling behind, the Eagles didn’t look like a team out for the equaliser, and the men in orange continued to ask questions.
The Elephants held on to their slender lead as the referee brought the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations to an end at the Stade Alassane Ouattara.
Troost-Ekong was named the tournament Most Valuable Player, but Nigerians were left unimpressed by the Eagles poor performance when it mattered most.
“Ivory Coast fully deserve this win. Unfortunately, the Super Eagles saved their worst performance for the final,” journalist, Nurudeen Obalaola said.
Another journalist, Wale Agbede, also said, “Ivory Coast have been poor in this tournament, yet we somehow made them look so good. Letting them take control of the midfield and also cross at will.”
Others also blamed the players for their lack of sheer individual brilliance in the final.
“Lookman totally off, Iwobi is like he’s not there, Zaidu calamity even Aina is a shadow of himself. This parking the bus was always going to backfire,” a broadcast journalist, Benjamin Okenna also noted.