On Sunday, the Super Eagles lost a dramatic Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final against hosts Ivory Coast at the Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium in Ebimpe, Abidjan.
Nigeria appeared to repeat their 1-0 triumph over the Ivorians at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium during the group stage when captain William Troost-Ekong, who had scored a penalty to decide the earlier match, rose to head in the opener late in the first half.
However, Franck Kessie equalized just after the hour mark, and Haller converted Simon Adingra’s cross in the 81st minute to trigger wild celebrations among the sea of orange in the Abidjan stadium.
Ivory Coast’s victory adds to their previous titles from 1992 and 2015, and it also allows them to join Nigeria in having won three Cup of Nations titles in total.
Only Egypt, Cameroon, and Ghana have won the title more frequently, with the Super Eagles missing the chance to match their Ghanaian rivals’ four victories.
The Nigerians, led by reigning African Player of the Year Osimhen, appeared to be the most fearsome squad in the league throughout the last month.
But Ivory Coast’s sense of destiny proved too strong, as they became the first host country to win the AFCON since 2006.
Didier Drogba captained the Elephants squad that lost on penalties to Egypt in Cairo 18 years ago, but this time he was a spectator as his country scored a shock triumph.
Back from the brink
It is a remarkable accomplishment for a team that was on the verge of elimination in the group stage after losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea on January 22.
That was their heaviest ever home defeat, and the Ivorians fired coach Jean-Louis Gasset, replacing him with Emerse Fae, a Drogba teammate from 2006.
They then staged an amazing comeback, defeating holders Senegal on penalties, Mali with a last-gasp goal in extra time, and DR Congo with a Haller goal in the last four.
Their supporters packed the stadium to its 60,000-person capacity, forcing many fans to view the game from stairwell vantage points.
Anyone looking to dampen the euphoria may have mentioned that Cup of Nations finals are typically low-scoring affairs.
There were just 10 goals scored in the previous 11 finals, five of which were decided on penalties following a 0-0 tie.
Indeed, Ivory Coast’s previous four final appearances had all gone goalless before proceeding to penalties, which they had won twice.
This appeared to be another nervy, low-scoring game, with few opportunities early on.
However, the home team had a golden opportunity on 34 minutes when Kessie found Adingra on the left, but his shot was saved by Nigerian goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali.
That proved crucial, as Nigeria took the lead just four minutes later when Ademola Lookman’s left-wing corner was headed in by Troost-Ekong from the edge of the six-yard box.
Earlier in the competition, the Ivorians would have crumbled in such a situation, but they deserve respect for recovering at the break and throwing everything at Nigeria.
Calvin Bassey blocked Max-Alain Gradel’s netbound shot in front of the line five minutes after the restart, and Nwabali turned an Odilon Kossounou long-range piledriver around the post after 62 minutes.
They equalised from the resulting corner, with Kessie — whose late penalty had saved the hosts against Senegal in the last 16 — appearing at the back post to head into the net.
It seemed inevitable that Ivory Coast would score again, and it did with nine minutes remaining in the game when Haller got his studs to Adingra’s cross and redirected the ball into the far corner.
Nigeria, down for the first time since their opening encounter, was unable to respond, and Ivory Coast won.