Haller's hope and courage the golden lining for Ivory Coast at AFCON: Moment of the Weekend

18 months ago, Sebastien Haller wouldn't have dreamt of this big moment Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

ESPN India's Moment of the Weekend usually focuses on Europe's top 5 leagues. But on some occasions, something so extraordinary happens that we're forced to abandon this not-so-hard-and-fast rule and look elsewhere to pick the one moment that lit up football's weekend. This is one of those occasions.

Simon Adingra has been causing Ola Aina and the Nigerian right flank trouble all evening. It's the final of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and Adingra has had his home crowd in Abidjan dancing to every tune he's playing. The score, though, is 1-1 and the pressure is mounting. Ivory Coast have won two AFCON finals, but in both those they had had to take it to penalties... but a shootout in front of such an expectant stadium? In front of Didier Drogba, the man they all idolise? Against a keeper who saved two out of four in their semifinal a couple of days ago? *Shudder*

Adingra knows this, knows that the pressure is reaching its crescendo. So in minute 80, he has a go at Aina again. He shapes to cut in, and that's bought hook, line, and sinker by Aina. A swivel of his hips, and Adingra is off on the outside, racing into the box, creating just enough buffer between him and Nigeria's right back to get a decent cross in.

Moving toward it, attacking the ball with a cleverness and a determination that's his hallmark, is Sebastian Haller. If you'd told him 18 months back that that there's where he'd be on Sunday, Feb 11, 2024, he'd have laughed.

Haller was a French youth international, playing alongside the likes of Anthony Martial, before declaring for Ivory Coast and playing his first match repping his mother's country in 2020. But that's just a curious bit of trivia, that's not why he'd have laughed. You see, in June 2022, a couple of weeks after making the big move to Borussia Dortmund to replace a certain Erling Haaland, he'd been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

The season before the move had been Haller's best till date. Scoring 34 goals in 43 matches for Ajax, he'd matched several big Champions League records: he became only the second player, after Cristiano Ronaldo, to score in all six group stage games and just the fourth (after Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Robert Lewandowski) to reach double figures in the CL group stages. He'd been at his absolute prime when that terrible disease struck.

Head shorn of his trademark curls, Haller attended the Ballon d'Or ceremony in 2022 mid-recuperation from the two surgeries he had to undergo, mid-chemotherapy. "I'm here because everything is going as well as it can," Haller said that day. "It's important to be involved at such events to show that you're strong."

Ivory Coast had had a tumultuous run to the final, losing two and sacking their manager in the group stages, barely qualifying to the knockouts as one of the best third-placed teams... but once in the knockouts, Haller had stepped up: his volleyed, bouncing, effort the sole goal in their semifinal against DR Congo.

In the final, though, he's been shackled well by the tournament's best player, William Troost-Ekong. His best chance of the night had come seven minutes before, a bicycle kick chance he fashioned out of nothing, the ball flying just wide of the near post. But Haller knows the life of a centre-forward... you can never say when the right service comes in, and you always have to be ready.

It wasn't until January 2023 that Haller could make his debut for Dortmund, and it wasn't until February (Feb 4, world cancer day, incidentally) that he scored his first goal for the club. "To score today was a great message to everyone who is fighting today or will fight later," he had said then.

And so in the 80th minute of a long, draining match, he's ready for Adingra. As soon as the Brighton winger skips past Aina, Haller knows what's coming and makes his move. What was a slow jog to the centre of the six-yard box has now turned into an all-out sprint to the near post. Troost-Ekong sees it, but just a tad too late... by the time Adingra has crossed the ball, Haller's got just the right side of the Nigeria captain.

As Adingra's ball flies into the box, Haller stretches out a leg, telescopically extending it in front of Troost-Ekong and guiding the fizzing delivery into the far corner with an incredibly deft touch off the underside of his right boot. In getting there ahead of the defender, he had shown not just clever movement, but incredible fight... the same quality that ensured he'd actually be present on the pitch on Sunday, basking in the joy of 60,000 clad in orange and green at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium.

2-1 Ivory Coast with ten minutes to go, and that's how it would stay... Sebastian Haller, cancer survivor, goalscoring hero, winning his nation the glory of an AFCON triumph.

A year ago, on the day he'd scored his first competitive goal after returning from winning his fight against cancer, Haller had said, "It gives some hope, some courage. The days after will always be better."

Haller always had that hope, always had that courage... and he's now willed those better days into being. For being a true inspiration, for showcasing just what sport can do, Sebastian Haller takes our Moment of the Weekend.