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AFCON 2023 best moments: Congo Unity, Hero Haller, and more

It was an Africa Cup of Nations unlike any other. Viral pre-game dance routines, countless 90th-minute goals, underdog triumphs, giant killing, a host nation crowned, and of course, Tam Sir’s Coup Du Marteau.

AFCON 2023 showed not just the best of African football, but the best of Africa. Never again will AFCON be viewed as an inconvenience to domestic leagues of apparent higher importance.

The tournament that unites a continent of almost 1.5 billion people, has now united the entire football world – African football is like no other.

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Over two billion people viewed the tournament worldwide. Transatlantic crossover is a beautiful thing. AFCON 2023 gave us laughter, tears, drama, joy, and most importantly pride.

Pride in being African. Pride in loving Africa. Here are our top six moments from AFCON 2023…

Congo Unity

The DR Congo faced off against hosts Ivory Coast in the semi-final at the Alassane Outtara Stadium on 7th February, with a place in their first AFCON final since 1974 at stake. When the Leopards’ starting 11 lined up before the game to recite their national anthem, they made a powerful gesture in support of the 111 million Congolese back at home in the Republic.

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Over 6.9 million people in Eastern Congo have been forced to flee from their homes, as the fighting over land and natural resources heightened between Congolese soldiers and The March 23 Movement (M23) rebels.

What good would continental success be if there was not a united nation back home to share it with?

In a powerful salute for peace, the Congolese players covered their mouths with their right hands and pointed to their temples with their left hands, reminding the world of the forgotten suffering of millions on their home soil.

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DR Congo may have lost 1-0 to Ivory Coast in that semi-final, but the significance of their pre-game salute remains. The tournament may be over, but the battle continues for the people of Congo.

Giants fell, Underdogs rose

It was an AFCON for the underdogs, as tournament titans Ghana and Algeria went crashing out in the group stages. Ghana went winless for a second-straight AFCON, and just like the 2021 edition they fell short of the knockouts.

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A 92nd-minute Garry Rodrigues goal dealt the Black Stars a 2-1 defeat against Cape Verde on matchday one. On matchday two they gave away the lead twice in their 2-2 draw with Egypt and then exited the tournament after conceding two stoppage time goals to draw 2-2 with Mozambique.

Chris Hughton predictably lost his job after the tournament. The wait for a first AFCON title since 1982 continues for the Black Stars.

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Since winning the tournament back in 2019, the Algerians have finished bottom of their groups at AFCON 2021 and AFCON 2023.

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The Desert Warriors opened their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Angola before a 95th-minute Baghdad Bounedjah strike salvaged them a draw and a vital point against Burkina Faso on matchday two.

The assignment in their final group game seemed simple – Mauritania – a team that had never won, or even led an AFCON game. But this was an AFCON unlike any other.

Mohamed Dellah Yali’s 37th-minute goal gave Mauritania their first-ever AFCON win and booked them a place in the knockout stages at the expense of the two-time champions.

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Unsurprisingly, Algeria parted ways with head coach Djamel Belmadi after the shock Mauritania defeat and subsequent exit from the tournament.

An 88th-minute Ryan Mendes penalty in the Round of 16 eventually ended Mauritania’s fantasy run, but their 1-0 win over Algeria will live long in the memory.

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Namibia, who made their fourth appearance at the AFCON in this edition had finished bottom of the group in their previous three appearances in 1998, 2008, and 2019.

Like Mauritania, the Namibians had also never tasted victory at AFCON in nine previous games – would it be tenth time lucky?

The odds said no. But the Namibians said yes. They upset former champions Tunisia 1-0 in their opening game through a dramatic 88th-minute Dean Hotto header.

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Despite being brought back down to earth by a 4-0 thrashing from South Africa on matchday two, they played out a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Mali to reach the knockout stages.

They crashed out of the tournament after a 3-0 defeat to Angola in the Round of 16, in a game that saw both teams reduced to ten men. But despite that defeat, the Namibians certainly showed themselves to be ‘Brave Warriors’ throughout the tournament.

The hand of Gambia

The final fixture of Group C gave us one of the most dramatic games of the tournament. Gambia took on Cameroon at the Stade de la Paix with both teams needing a win to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Karl Toko-Ekambi, who has now hung up his international boots, gave Cameroon a much-needed 55th-minute lead.

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However, it was Gambia who entered the final minutes ahead after goals from Abbie Jallow and Ebrima Colley.

James Gomez’s 87th-minute own goal and Christopher Wooh’s 91st-minute header looked to have secured the Indomitable Lions a place in the knockout stages. Before Cameroonian hearts sunk when Muhammed Sanneh equalised for Gambia through a 93rd-minute corner.

A swift VAR check showed Sanneh had handled the ball into the net and the goal was disallowed. Some might say it brought back memories of Diego Maradona’s Hand of God at the 1986 World Cup. However, it was nowhere near as cute and clever.

Bebé! Bebé! Bebé!

Cape Verde was the first team to qualify for the knockout stages after they defeated Mozambique 3-0 on matchday two at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium.

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The game produced two of the goals of the tournament from Bebé and Kevin Pina, but it was Bebé’s thunderous 40-yard strike that opened the floodgates.

The Cape Verdeans were firing from a distance that day. Bebé saw a 24th-minute free kick from almost 40 yards out rattle off the crossbar – an initial warning to Hernâni Siluane in the Mozambican goal.

Eight minutes later he struck one from near enough Cape Verde, which had Siluane and the crossbar beat.

Could Siluane have done better with the strike? Absolutely. But rather than nitpick on goalkeeping, we will allow these islands of just 600,000 people to enjoy this Bebé thunderbolt.

Cape Verde eventually lost 2-1 to South Africa on penalties in the quarter-finals, as goalkeeper of the tournament Ronwen Williams made four saves.

Troost the process

Despite narrowly missing out on lifting the trophy, Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong was named player of the tournament after starring in the Super Eagles’ run to the final.

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The centre-back picked up a minor injury in their 1-0 win against hosts Ivory Coast on matchday two. However, he battled on to anchor a robust Nigerian defense that kept four clean sheets throughout the tournament.

Troost-Ekong was also impactful at the opposite end of the pitch, scoring three goals to finish as the Super Eagles’ joint-top scorer alongside Ademola Lookman.

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His performances also saw him named in the team of the tournament, and he, along with the rest of the Super Eagles squad received the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by President Bola Tinubu, which is one of Nigeria’s highest honors.

He was born in the Netherlands but he’s a true Naija man at heart. The African diaspora is alive and strong, and next year he’ll have another chance to bring the continental crown back to Nigeria. Troost-Ekong no dey carry last.

Hero Haller 

Sébastien Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer shortly after signing for Borussia Dortmund in July 2022. Returning to football was merely an afterthought at that point, let alone scoring the winning goal for his country at a home AFCON final.

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His comeback story encapsulates the story of the hosts’ tournament. A 2-0 opening-day victory against Guinea-Bissau was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Nigeria, and a 4-0 thumping by Equatorial Guinea.

Jean-Louis Gasset was then relieved of his duties, as the Elephants crept into the knockout stages by the skin of their teeth as one of the fourth-best third-placed teams.

First-time head coach Emerse Faé was then put in the hot seat, and in his first game against defending champions Senegal, he handed Haller his first appearance at AFCON 2023.

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Haller calmly converted his penalty in Ivory Coast’s 5-4 shootout victory against the Teranga Lions – a quarterfinal against Mali awaited them.

Odilon Kossounou’s first-half dismissal, which was compounded by Nene Dorgeles’ long-range 71st-minute curler, looked to have ended the AFCON dream for the Ivorians.

But in the 90th minute, the best young player of the tournament Simon Adingra equalised to drag the handicapped hosts into extra time. Oumar Diakité then completed the comeback in the 123rd minute.

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Better late than never they say, that’s African timing for you – now cue Haller.

Haller’s battle started 17 months before the semi-finals, but he would now have to make his mark against a DR Congo side united against battles they were facing themselves back in the Republic.

In the 65th minute, he did just that, after Ivorian captain Max-Alain Gradel glided his way past Congo’s Faku-Arthur Masuaku on the right wing, drove to the byline, and lifted a hopeful ball into the box.

When Haller connected with Gradel’s cross first time, the ball struck the ground and then bounced over Lionnel Mpasi and into the Congolese goal – the Elephants now had a chance to add a third star to that famous orange jersey on home soil.

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But a familiar face awaited them in the final in Abidjan – the Naija man dey come for town again.

Troost-Ekong and Franck Kessié headers on either side of the break looked to have the 34th AFCON final going into extra time.

But in the 81st minute, Adingra’s sharp turn on the edge of the box left Ola Aina flat-footed, and gave him space to fizz a ball to the near post. Haller then got ahead of Troost-Ekong and met Adingra’s cross with his studs, and the ball flew into the side of Stanley Nwabali’s net.

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Mission complete. Nation united. Hero Haller.


Feature Image Credit: Fédération Guinéenne Football / via Wikimedia Commons



  • Emile Nuh

    Emile Nuh is a Sports Journalist who predominantly focuses on Formula 1 and Basketball. He did have a prior interest in Football, however the Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital Consortium takeover of Chelsea quickly put an end to that. Like many journalists Emile also has a “I could have made it pro if it wasn’t for my...story”. In his case, he attributes his dodgy shoulder as the one that brought an end to his sporting aspirations