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Party begins as Ivory Coast rally to beat Nigeria 2-1 and win Africa Cup of Nations

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast: Let the party begin.

Sebastien Haller scored late to lead host nation Ivory Coast to a remarkable Africa Cup of Nations title with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the final on Sunday.

Haller fired in from close range in the 81st minute to complete the turnaround after Franck Kessie drew the Elephants level in the 62nd.

It was Ivory Coast’s third title after wins in 1992 and 2015, both won on penalties.

Veteran Ivory Coast midfielder Max Gradel, now 36, was part of the 2015 championship team.

“Representing the national team is everything, and to have brought joy to all Ivorians with what I’ve done is even more incredible,” Gradel said Sunday. “Perhaps I don’t realize everything that happened today yet, there are too many things in my head, but I think I’ll take some time to realize it.

“The most important thing is that Ivorians are proud of the team and I think they are that tonight. Winning the Africa Cup this evening, there is nothing better, nothing better.”

Haller’s second goal in as many games after recovering from an ankle injury that kept him out of the group stage completed a personal triumph for the player, just over a year since he returned from cancer treatment.

Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong had scored in the 38th against the run of play with a header to a corner. The Super Eagles had been outplayed in the first half and really only threatened again in a desperate attempt to equalize after Haller’s goal.

Troost-Ekong also scored when the teams last met in the group stage for Nigeria’s 1-0 win. That match had been just the start of the Elephants’ troubles as Ivory Coast was almost eliminated in its next game. It fired its coach but recorded late comeback wins over defending champion Senegal and Mali in the knockout stage, before Haller fired the team into the final with the winning goal against Congo in the semifinals.

Ivory Coast’s unlikely progression through the knockout stage as it overcame setback after setback convinced many devout Ivorians that God was on the team’s side.

“It was an extraordinary tournament,” said interim coach Emerse Fae, the previous assistant who took over on his 40th birthday.

Nigeria conceded as many goals in the final as it had in all its previous games in the tournament. Coach José Peseiro had banked on a mean defense to earn what would have been the Super Eagles’ fourth title.

“We played a fantastic tournament, but today Cote d’Ivoire was better,” Peseiro said. The Portuguese coach said the pressure got to his players and commended the home team for showing none.

In the final, Ivory Coast’s pressure finally paid off when Kessie’s header to Adingra’s corner set off a tumult of joy in the 60,000-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium. Kessie ran to the corner and raised his hand to his forehead in salute as the sea of orange-clad fans rippled in delight.

A small pocket of green-and-white clad Nigeria fans behind one of the goals had struggled to make an impact.

Haller’s winner set off celebrations that will last long through the night in Abidjan and in the rest of the country of 27.5 million people.

Excitement had been building for days with streets turned into viewing areas with plastic tables and chairs set in front of TV screens in the district of Adjame, and fan zones around the city also showed the game.

Traffic was brought to a crawl for miles around the stadium hours before kickoff, providing street vendors with a captive customer base to sell chilled bottles of water, fruit, snacks, Ivory Coast flags, hats, wigs and towels, replica jerseys for both teams, and more.

But it caused problems for the Nigeria team bus getting to the game. Armed soldiers frantically urged motorists stuck in gridlock outside the stadium to pull over for the bus and security detail to make it through.

Fans had to abandon stationary commuter buses to walk to the match.

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