Cote d'Ivoire: Tthe Miracle of Abidjan

17 February 2024

In July 2022, Sebastian Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer. When this really hits you, in that moment, all that will matter to you is your life, and this grave threat it now faces.

Football, despite all its intoxicating beauty, and spellbinding magic, will be something which resides in another world.

In such life and death situations, sport loses its glamour, let alone its significance, and it fades away into the distance.

You stop chasing the Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Dynamos, Highlanders, CAPS United and Chegutu Pirates results.

You begin to face the grim reality of death, where there is no football, no Super Bowl, no Ashes Test, no Harare Derby, no Anfield and no Old Trafford.

You begin to think about your children -- how they will handle your permanent loss, your absence from their lives and your shadow which will never leave the house.

You begin to think about your friends -- how they will handle your loss, your permanent absence from their circle, the great moments you shared, the pain you collectively endured.

For me, it will be about how Solomon Banda, my childhood friend, will take it and try to deal with a tragedy that will take a huge part of himself.

It will also be about how Godfrey JapaJapa, the guy who has been my shoulder to lean on for 30 years, will adjust to a loss that will haunt him for the remainder of his life.

The same will also be true to me in the event that these two guys end up being the ones whose retirement, from this garden of the living, comes first.

This is the grave situation Haller faced just, two years ago, when doctors told him that he had testicular cancer.

He must have known, at the time of his diagnosis, that Dylan Tombides, another footballer who was good enough to play in the English Premiership, lost his battle against this cancer.

After all, Tombides once played for West Ham, the same club which Haller featured for, during his romance with the Premiership.

Like Haller, the Australian was a striker and had arrived at the Hammers as a 15-year-old football prodigy only for his three-year battle with cancer to derail his progress.

He didn't win that fight and, at the age of 20, on April 18, 2014, Tombides died in London.

He is just one of two West Ham players who were accorded the greatest honour by the club -- to have their shirts retired.

The other one of Bobby Moore who, as England captain, led the Three Lions to their only World Cup success story in 1966.

Brian Piccolo, who was an American football star who played as a running back for the Chicago Bears, was just 26, when he lost his battle against testicular cancer.

Gunnar Nilsson was just 29 when he lost his battle against testicular cancer.

He had made his name as a Formula One driver.

Like Nilsson at the time of his death, Haller is 29 and only turns 30 on June 22 this year.

Two years ago, living long enough to celebrate his 30th birthday this year, didn't appear to be part of Haller's plans.

To be playing football, at this stage of his life, even appeared very remote and, when the first photos of his time on his hospital bed emerged, it was difficult to believe there would be a comeback, in this game, for him.

But, what this cancer didn't know was that it had taken on a real fighter, a proper Elephant.

There were two surgeries and four cycles of chemotherapy for Haller, during his stay in hospital.

"The last 18 months have been challenging for me and my family," he told the BBC last year.

"Given what has happened over the last few months, it's great to be here in front of you.

"The urologist helped me not to be scared, he said I could heal well, I took all his words for granted."


In February last year, Haller returned to competitive football in the colours of Borussia Dortmund.

As fate would have it, his first appearance came on the day the globe marks World Cancer Day.

Dortmund put a tumour at the centre of the field to remind their fans and the world about this beast which had come close to consuming one of their own.

On Sunday, exactly one year later, Haller scored the goal which powered Cote d'Ivoire to victory in the AFCON final in Abidjan.

Football has thrown up some fascinating tales in its history.

None was probably better than the Danish national team, which were ordered to come from their holiday beaches to replace Yugoslavia Euro '92, and ended up winning the tournament.

A team, which had failed to qualify for the tourney, ended up being crowned champions in one of the game's greatest Cinderella tales.

But, one gets this impression that Haller's rise from his hospital bed, after conquering cancer, to drag his nation to Nations Cup glory, is probably the greatest fairy-tale story football has ever scripted.

It wasn't an ordinary goal.

It was a special strike, a delicate flick which showed his awareness, his predatory instincts and his predatory qualities to break Nigerian hearts and send Cote d'Ivoire into a mass outdoor party.

Sport is as special as it is cruel.

In the enforced absence of the Warriors, who stood a good chance of winning this AFCON, if you ask me, I really didn't care who would emerge as winners of this tourney.

But, in the final, I developed a bias for the Super Eagles because I felt their victory would provide me with ammunition to argue that the Warriors would also probably have won it too.


Because like a lawyer I would have argued that if the Warriors were good enough to hold the same Super Eagles, on neutral soil in Rwanda, in November, it means they were also good enough to win the tournament.

Of course, I know football is not mathematics and doesn't work that way but you have to understand that patriotism comes with an element of blindness where common sense has very little room.

So, in a way, Haller broke my heart with that winning goal but if I had been asked to choose anyone who should have done that, I would have gone for Haller.

His story is bigger than football and should be celebrated even if, during those celebrations, some hearts were broken.

Haller wasn't fighting for his nation alone but he was fighting for all those who have been diagnosed with one form of cancer to the other.

He was giving hope to millions of men and women who find themselves battling cancer, in all its various forms, around the world today.

To many of them, just seeing a man who, just two years ago was in their same condition, scoring the goal that won his country the Nations Cup, is a powerful form of therapy on its own.

It gives them hope that tomorrow might not be as bleak as today and if Haller could rise from his hospital bed to write such a grand story for his nation, they also have a right to believe.

So, on Sunday, it wasn't just the Ivorians who won, it was a victory for a big constituency of the world.


Haller was not the only member of the hosts who felt that, in his country's finest hour in nine years, life found a way to repay him for all the suffering he endured.

Coach Emerse Fae was a mere assistant to 70-year-old Frenchman, Jean-Louis Gasset, when the tournament started.

By the time it ended on Sunday, Gasset was jobless, having been fired when the group stages ended with a 0-4 thrashing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea, while Fae was a national hero.

Once he took over, the Elephants were unstoppable and eliminated the defending champions and then beat the Super Eagles to be crowned champions.

Fae was only 28 when he was forced to end his career, as a professional footballer, because of phlebitis.

His career had started at Nantes, where he was born in France, before he got a contract with Reading when they were still a Premiership club.

He played every game for the Elephants at the 2006 Nations Cup and they ended as runners-up to hosts Egypt in the final after losing a penalty shoot-out.

He is a man who always felt that life, in one way or the other, has always been giving him a raw deal.

On Sunday, life eventually smiled on him, in the best way possible, as his Elephants completed probably the most unlikely success story at the Nations Cup.

He deserved it because, once he took over, the hosts were a different team and played with the energy and confidence which had been lacking under Gassett.

Fae also fought and won a battle for his fellow African coaches, a group of men who for decades have been given a raw deal by their football leaders who pamper European plumbers, disguised as coaches, with the biggest pay cheques.

It's a golden phase for African coaches who have now won the last three Nations Cup tournaments despite always getting a raw deal from their FA bosses.

This is the greatest AFCON of all-time and, from day one, it provided fireworks and some great stories.

By the quarter-final stage, all the five countries who represented the continent at the last World Cup had been sent packing.

On a number of fronts, this Nations Cup delivered something special and it's a tournament we will not forget in a hurry.

For some of us, there will always be that regret that our boys, the Warriors, were not part of the show.

We will never know how far they would have performed on the big stage if the politics of the game had not bowled them out.

What I'm so sure about is that we would have performed better than Zambia who, on their return to the Nations Cup after a nine-year absence, appeared lost dancing with the big boys.

We would have matched the Nigerians, which probably means we would have lost in the final, which would have been a good achievement for us.

Of course, those are just dreams but, if you ask Haller and Fae, they will tell you that dreams can, indeed, come true.

They are real life testimonies to show us that nothing is impossible in life, just like in football.

Even Bafana Bafana can now finish third at the AFCON after having failed to qualify for the last tournament.

To God Be The Glory!

Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton, Daily Service, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and all the Chakariboys still in the struggle.

Come on Chegutu Pirates!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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