By S. Siapha Mulbah
“La Elephant,” the name of the national team of Cote d’Ivoire, the host of the 2023 African Cup of Nations, made it to the knockout stage of the competition by the skin of their teeth, qualifying as best losers.
They were used as an ‘option’ to complete the table for the round of 16. As a member of Group ‘A’, the host nation failed to secure one of the two top spots in their group as they won only the opening match of 2023 AFCON and lost the remaining games in the group stage to Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, earning them a third-place position. As a result, the team and citizens of the land had to pray and hope that their third-place position be one of the best across the six groups.
Fortunately for them, they got back into the competition as the fourth best third-place team after Ghana and Zambia ended the group stage with two points each in the same third positions in Groups B and F respectively.
This grace of resurrection also covered Guinea, Mauritania, and Namibia to join the 12 countries that had directly qualified based on the top two criterion of the competition, to have a total of 16 teams.
Those that came out of their groups as leaders were, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Senegal, Angola, Mali and Morrocco, while Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, ended in the second positions of their respective groups.
Since the dawn of reintroduction fell upon the Ivorian national team, they seem not to be relenting in pursuing their quest to win the nations cup for the third time.
The Elephants have been to the competition’s grand final four times, winning it twice, first against Ghana in 1992 on post-match penalties, as well as in 2015 against the same opponent. In 2006, they lost to Egypt on the same post-match penalties and later lost to Zambia in 2012 in another penalty shootout. The Elephants will go looking for their third AFCON trophy in five finals on Sunday, February 11, 2024, against Nigeria at the Allassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan.
After the group stage, the Elephants met the defending champions, Senegal, in the round of 16. Both sides played to an equal score after 120 minutes plus some additional stoppages. The 1-1 draw ended in a penalty session that was won by the Elephant 5-4. Thereafter, they defeated Mali 2-1 in the quarterfinals and DR Congo 1-0 to get to the final.
The Elephants are going to the final against the Super Eagles of Nigeria who defeated them on January 18, during match day 2 of the group stage.
Many sports followers and enthusiasts have described the game as a huge fixture, and rightly so, for the two West African teams.
The hosts will be that the shifting process in the team’s administration after the group stage has an impact on the performance and will land them the trophy; on the other hand, the Super Eagles are hopeful that they can do the double over Cote D’Ivoire in less than one month.
Sunday’s final will be the Super Eagles’ eighth appearance, and a win for them will sum their AFCON trophies to four.
In 1980, Nigeria went to its first AFCON final and won against Algeria. Four years later in 1984, they reappeared at the showpiece but fell to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Cameroon.
The Super Eagles made back-to-back final appearances in 1988 and 1990, but got defeated by Cameroon and Algeria 2-1 in the two finals respectively. In 1994, they won their second trophy in a 2-1 win over Zambia. In 2000, they lost another final to Cameroon, and in 2013, had their last final appearance, which they won, taking the AFCON trophy to Lagos after an impressive 1-0 win over Burkina Faso.
At the African Cup of Nations, the two finalists have played against each other four times, with each side wining two of the four fixtures. The Elephants won their first two AFCON meetings in 2006 and 2008 1-0. The Super Eagles won the remaining two meetings in 2013, 2-1, and 2024, 1-0.
The February 11 meeting will eventually settle the score, with it being the first time they meet at this stage. The winner will lift the continent’s most prestigious football trophy that will be celebrated for the next two years.
Bravo to the two West African finalists!!!