ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — One year after returning from cancer treatment, Sébastien Haller could lead Ivory Coast to the Africa Cup of Nations title.
Haller fired the host nation into Sunday’s final against three-time champion Nigeria with the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Congo in the semifinals.
“It’s kind of a great moment today to be here in front of you speaking about the final, about the Africa Cup in your own country,” Haller said Saturday. “I’m just enjoying it. I hope that tomorrow I will enjoy as well. But I think I will take a few months or a few years to really realize what’s happened in the last years.”
The game against Congo was Haller’s first start of the tournament, after two substitute appearances, while he worked his way back from an ankle injury that prevented his involvement in the group stage.
It’s not his first comeback, however, and certainly not his most important.
Haller missed six months of soccer from mid-2022 after being diagnosed with testicular cancer shortly after joining Borussia Dortmund from Ajax Amsterdam. He underwent two operations and four cycles of chemotherapy, each of those meaning five days in a hospital bed.
He returned to training in January last year and went on to score vital goals in Dortmund’s Bundesliga title challenge. Bayern Munich ultimately pipped his side to the crown on the final day.
But now Haller has the chance of another – thanks to Ivory Coast’s unlikely path to the final.
The 29-year-old forward’s goal against Congo was just the latest chapter in a remarkable story as the host nation has bounced between triumph and despair and back again to reach the final for the fifth time.
Haller said he was just taking each moment as it comes and not thinking about the bigger picture.
“Obviously the last one and a half years have been quite challenging for myself, for the family, for everyone,” he said. “I have the feeling that no matter what you want to do, something will happen. So, I just take everything step by step. And I just try to enjoy every moment, take every choice, not have any regrets.”
Against Congo, and in the minutes he played in the knockout games against Senegal and Mali, Haller gave Ivory Coast a focal point for its attack that was lacking when he wasn’t there.
His importance to the team can be seen also in the advertising billboards he features in prominently around the country.
Haller acknowledged the pressure he feels to lead the Elephants to a successful outcome.
“But this is a good pressure as well. You’re playing the Africa Cup in your own country, you have a lot of people that are just pushing you, to support you every day,” Haller said. “It gives you the strength to just perform. So, that’s a beautiful thing. And I hope that this good pressure will bring my country to the top.”
Ivory Coast is going for its third title after wins in 1992 and 2015.
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