Ivory Coast's Haller eyes AFCON glory after cancer battle, Bundesliga agony

No single player symbolises Ivory Coast's remarkable turnaround to reach this weekend's Africa Cup of Nations final quite like striker Sebastien Haller.

AFP , Friday 9 Feb 2024,
Ivory Coast's forward #22 Sebastien Haller celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2023) semi-final football match between Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo at Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium in Ebimpe, Abidjan on February 7, 2024. Photo: AFP


The 29-year-old was the host country's match-winner in the semi-final against the Democratic Republic of Congo in his first start of the tournament after injury.

That came after a year marked by a return from cancer and then an agonising climax to the German Bundesliga title race with Borussia Dortmund.

Like Didier Drogba once upon a time, Haller is the poster boy of the Elephants team at this, their home Cup of Nations.

He appears on billboards across Abidjan, advertising anything from mineral water to deodorant and a major mobile phone operator.

"It's bizarre. I wasn't expecting that," he admitted ahead of the tournament when asked about seeing his face everywhere.

"I need to use this notoriety to serve as an example to others."

Yet it looked like he might not play any part in the competition as an ankle injury picked up playing for Dortmund in December prevented him from featuring in the group stage.

The Ivorians were on the brink of a humiliating group-stage exit after a stunning 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea in their third game, but squeezed through as the last of the four best third-placed teams.

Haller was therefore able to play a part from the bench under interim coach Emerse Fae -- appointed mid-tournament to replace the sacked Jean-Louis Gasset -- as Ivory Coast faced Senegal in the last 16.

He scored in the penalty shoot-out as the hosts knocked out the holders, and he again played an important part as a substitute in the dramatic quarter-final win over Mali.

Finally considered fit to start in the semi-final, it was his volley that saw off DR Congo at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium.

"It is true that we had a few slip-ups at the start of the competition but maybe we are a different team now," he told broadcaster Canal Plus Afrique after that game before playing down his own role in the semi-final triumph.

"I wasn't really thinking that I absolutely had to score. The most important thing was to help the team," he said.

Struggles at club level

Haller was born in France and represented them up to the Under-21 level, playing alongside 2018 World Cup winners such as Benjamin Pavard and Ousmane Dembele.

However, with the call from France senior coach Didier Deschamps never coming, he accepted the offer in 2020 to play for Ivory Coast, the country of his mother's birth.

"When I scored my first goal on my first cap against Madagascar, it was really something. I was so happy," he later recalled in an interview with So Foot magazine.

Haller played in the Ivorian team that went out of the last Cup of Nations in Cameroon in the last 16.

At that point the former Eintracht Frankfurt and West Ham United forward was starring for Ajax, banging in the goals in the Netherlands and in the UEFA Champions League.

A big-money move to Dortmund followed in July 2022, with the German club seeing him as the man to replace Erling Haaland, who had just been sold to Manchester City.

However, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer just days after joining, and several months of treatment followed, including four rounds of chemotherapy and two operations.

His first competitive appearance for the club only came on January 22 last year against Augsburg.

He went on to score nine goals in the run-in as Edin Terzic's side looked certain to end a decade of Bayern Munich dominance and win the Bundesliga.

They were in the driving seat on the final day of the campaign, but Haller missed a penalty in a 2-2 draw with Mainz which allowed Bayern to pip Dortmund on goal difference.

There has been little to shout about at club level since then for Haller, who has not started a game for Dortmund since September and has not scored since netting a brace in a Cup tie against lower-league opponents on August 12.

Yet now he has the chance to lead his country to Cup of Nations glory on Sunday against Nigeria, something which he will also hope can kickstart his club career.

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