Haller caps return from cancer with Afcon trophy

Sebastien Haller during his treatment for testicular cancer at Borussia Dortmund and with the Africa Cup of Nations trophySeb Haller on Twitter/Getty Images

Shortly after he scored the goal that secured one of the most unlikely Africa Cup of Nations title wins for Ivory Coast, Sebastien Haller was doing a television interview which he had to stop as he broke down in tears.

Having put on a brave face for so long, this was the moment when his torturous two-year journey to the Elephants’ tumultuous triumph really hit home and emotions understandably overwhelmed him.

For it was just over a year ago that the striker showed he had won his biggest contest yet, when he returned to football six months after overcoming testicular cancer.

And now here he was, pitch-side in Abidjan’s Alassane Ouattara Stadium, witnessing the fevered celebrations after his goal gave the Elephants a 2-1 win over Nigeria and a third Nations Cup title.

“We dreamed of this moment so many times,” Haller said.

“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.”

His winning goal, a brilliant flicked finish from Simon Adingra’s cross, came just four days after Haller had also proved to be the matchwinner in the semi-final win over DR Congo.

“I am so happy for Haller,” former Ivory Coast international Kolo Toure, once of Arsenal and Manchester City, said on BBC Three.

“He went through a tough time but he did unbelievably for the team. He is a humble man, and he works hard for the team. He is just someone who wants to help his team-mates.

“I am so happy he scored that goal – it is fantastic for him and for the country.”

But, in many ways, it was also amazing that he was even on the pitch – as he referenced in a news conference on the eve of the final.

“The last 18 months have been challenging for me and my family,” the 29-year-old said on Saturday.

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

Sebastien Haller scores for Ivory Coast against Nigeria in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations final

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While it was improbable that an Ivorian should be talking about contesting the final given the fact that the team were on the brink of a group-stage exit, only to squeeze through into the knockout round as a best third-placed side, it was even more so that it should be Haller.

It was in early February 2023 that Haller scored his first goal for Borussia Dortmund to wild acclaim, as he was buried beneath a sea of yellow-clad team-mates.

The goal came eight months after he had signed for the German club, but the outpouring of emotion was all about his recovery from testicular cancer, which he had been diagnosed with in July 2022 – just two weeks after joining Dortmund.

“Of course, you realise it is something really serious that is happening, that a lot of things can change,” Haller told BBC Sport last year.

“But the urologist helped me not to be scared. He said I could heal well. I took all his words for granted.”

Coming back from cancer

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After two surgeries and various rounds of chemotherapy, Haller returned to full training in early January 2023, making his debut later that month before scoring against Freiburg, in one of those strange coincidences, on World Cancer Day itself.

Fast forward to this January and injury, albeit much milder, was again preventing the former West Ham and Eintracht Frankfurt forward from featuring for the Ivorians as they hosted the delayed 2023 Nations Cup.

After damaging his ankle on 19 December, Haller was not fit enough to make the squad for the Elephants’ first three games.

But that paved the way for his return as the conquering hero given their calamitous group stage, in which they lost twice, including a heaviest ever home – and Nations Cup finals – defeat when losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea.

Ivory Coast sacked coach Jean-Louis Gasset but then progressed to the last 16 just hours later as Zambia failed to get the result needed to finish above the West Africans as a best third-placed side.

“After the big defeat against Equatorial Guinea, we had no choice,” Haller said.

“We’ve come back from a long way. There were words, moments, which were not easy for the players, staff and everybody [but] which were necessary.”

And, after the team had scored just twice in the group stage, the return of Haller was ever more important.

This, after all, was a man who became the second player after Cristiano Ronaldo to score in all six Champions League group games in 2021-22 for Dutch side Ajax, before eclipsing the Portuguese to became the fastest player to reach 10 Champions League goals in history.

A crucial impact for Elephants

In the hosts’ epic last-16 clash against defending champions Senegal, Haller was thrown on late in normal time, where his physical presence, hold-up skills and direct play proved crucial.

It was his perfectly-weighted and probing through ball which found Nicolas Pepe, who was duly upended to allow the Ivorians to score from the spot and take the game into extra time.

Haller then played his part by netting in the shootout, with the Ivorians prevailing 5-4 to knock out the holders.

Against Mali in an equally-thrilling quarter-final, Haller was again a substitute – but thrown on at half-time as interim coach Emerse Fae gambled with his team down to 10 men.

The former France youth international almost settled the match in extra-time when heading a perfect Wilfried Singo cross against the bar, but it was Oumar Diakite who netted the dramatic 122nd-minute winner to set up a semi-final meeting against DR Congo.

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Before his injury, Haller’s international form – three goals in three games – had been far better than at Dortmund this season, where he has failed to score in 11 league games (despite having rebounded well last season with nine goals in 19).

Haller was handed his first start of the finals in the last-four match against DR Congo, and the tall striker made the telling impact with an unorthodox finish midway through the second period at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium.

Haller volleyed a deep cross from Max-Alain Gradel into the ground, over DR Congo keeper Lionel Mpasi and just inches under the bar in a ping-pong style finish, to provide a ‘Haller-lujah’ moment for Elephants fans as the tense deadlock in Abidjan was finally broken.

Cue raucous celebrations and a barely-believable roar once again – this time across an entire country, and not just inside a stadium which had former Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba in attendance.

“It’s certain the public push us in every moment. When the public is there and make noise and push us, that makes the difference,” Haller said.

Celebrations with the president

Sebastien Haller with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara

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Born in Paris to a French dad and Ivorian mum, Haller played at every youth level for France – from Under-16 all the way to Under-21 – but in 2020, he pledged his senior international future to his mother’s land.

And how she and her nation of 30 million are happy he did as he against proved a central figure again in Sunday’s final against Nigeria.

After the Elephants trailed for a third time in their fourth knockout game, they rebounded once again in another show of resilience.

Franck Kessie equalised just after the hour mark and Haller showed a remarkable touch to volley Simon Adingra’s pacey cross into the far corner of the Nigerian net.

Once again, he was besieged by team-mates – this time lost in a cloud of orange as Haller disappeared from view despite his stature.

“I now take everything step-by-step and try to enjoy every moment. I don’t want to have any regrets,” he had said on Saturday.

“I think it might take months or years to take it all in, what has happened over the last few years.”

Thankfully, as he reflects on the dark side of his recent life, when so much was in the balance just over a year and a half ago, a smile may just break out on the face of this gentle giant as he recalls what may well prove to be his fondest memory in football.

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