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Ben Gray: Was Ivory Coast’s Africa Cup of Nations glory the greatest major tournament triumph of all-time?


On Sunday night, Ivory Coast were crowned African champions for the third time, coming from a goal down to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final at Stade Olympique d’Ébimpé.

On the face of it, les Elephants’ success isn’t that extraordinary; they were one of the favourites prior to the tournament, due to the fact they have a great history, a very talented squad and were playing on home soil.

However, everything that happened during the 29-day period between their opener against Guinea-Bissau and the final makes this one of the most noteworthy major tournament triumphs we’ve ever seen.

But is it the greatest of all-time? Well let’s first explore some of the other contenders.

Denmark: European Championship 1992

Almost inarguably, the most well-known unlikely triumph at a major tournament came at Euro ‘92, given that eventual winners Denmark didn’t even qualify for the finals.

A mere 10 days before the opening game, due to the outbreak of civil war, Yugoslavia were banned from competing by both FIFA and UEFA meaning Denmark, the side who’d finished second in qualifying Group 4, were given a very belated invite to Sweden.

As if in some sort of heist movie, manager Richard Moller Nielsen had to put together a squad, trying to contact players who were on holiday, with the team’s star Michael Laudrup turning down the call-up, preferring to continue soaking up some sun somewhere following a long club season with Barcelona.

Given that de Rod-Hvide’s best attacker didn’t think they had a chance, why should anyone else believe differently?

Well, after Denmark drew their opener 0-0 with England, before a 1-0 defeat to hosts Sweden at Rasunda, their appearance at this competitions looked like being a mere footnote.

However, in the final group game, Lars Elstrup’s late goal saw them beat Euro ‘84 winners France 2-1, thereby sneaking into the semi-finals at les Blues’ expense.

In the last four, the Danes took on defending champions Netherlands and, just as they appeared set to cause a huge upset in Gothenburg, Frank Rijkaard equalised four minutes from time, forcing extra time and penalties.

Nine of the 10 spot-kicks were converted, the sole exception being that of Marco van Basten, the scorer of that wonderful goal in the Euro ‘88 final, as he was denied by Peter Schmeichel.

Awaiting Denmark in the final were reigning world champions Germany but, against all odds, they triumphed 2-0 at Ullevi, with future Arsenal midfielder John Jensen breaking the deadlock with a rocket.

Given all of the above, this is going to be hard to top.

Greece: European Championships 2004

Just 12 years later, the European Championships provided yet another unbelievable underdog triumph.

Prior to the competition kicking off, Greece were the second lowest-ranked side competing, above only Latvia, while they’d never won a major tournament match, their only previous appearances coming at Euro ‘80 and USA ‘94, losing all three matches, conceding ten goals and scoring zero, stateside a decade earlier.

Despite this, the Sky Blues and Whites caused a major shock by beating hosts Portugal 2-1 in the opening game, with a 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo scoring late on, but ultimately in vain.

After that, they held Spain to a 1-1 draw, but were then beaten 2-1 by Russia in their final group game, only sneaking through at la Roja’s expense by virtue of goals-scored, the fifth tie-breaker.

In the quarter-finals, Otto Rehhagel’s team were huge underdogs ahead of their clash with defending champions France, but managed to get through 1-0.

1-0 to Greece would very much become the theme of the knockout phase, as they prevailed by the same scoreline in the semi-finals against Czech Republic in Porto.

Traianos Dellas scored his one-and-only international goal that night, this coming in injury time at the end of the first half of extra time, instantaneously sending them through by virtue of silver goal, the only example of this happening in an international anywhere in the world before the experiment was abolished by IFAB.

Twenty-two days after meeting in the curtain raiser, Portugal and Greece went head-to-head again, with this rematch providing the same result, as Angelos Charisteas’ header saw the underdogs defeat the hosts in Lisbon.

Priced at 150/1 to go all the way before a ball was kicked, we’ve not seen a less-likely success than Greece at Euro 2004 in modern times and possibly never will again.

Zambia: Africa Cup of Nations 2012

Turning our attention back to the Africa Cup of Nations, the most unlikely victors at this competition for a very long time were, without question, are Zambia in 2012.

At the previous seven editions, the Copper Bullets had only managed to get out of their group once, while their squad featured just two players based in Europe: Chisamba Lungu (Ural Yekaterinburg) and Emmanuel Mayuka (BSC Young Boys), hardly illustrious names.

Nevertheless, they managed to top their group unbeaten, most-notably beating co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in their final group fixture, pipping them to first place.

Zambia then hammered Sudan in the quarter-finals, before ousting pre-tournament favourites Ghana 1-0 in the semis.

The final against Ivory Coast at Stade d’Angondje finished 0-0, as AFCON finals tend to do, before, after the first 14 penalties were scored, Zambia’s triumph was complete, prevailing 8-7 in Libreville.

At this point, we did not know the power of manager Herve Renard, but he would also win the 2015 AFCON in charge of Ivory Coast, having masterminded this unlikely Zambian triumph against them three years earlier.

Why Ivory Coast in 2024 might just be the greatest triumph of all-time

All of these major tournament triumphs outlined above, and many more we’ve left off, are tales of the unexpected, where a lesser-fancied team upsets the odds and achieves something no one believed possible.

Ivory Coast’s victory at the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations was not this but, in many ways, that makes it more extraordinary.

Everything was serene when les Elephants defeated minnows Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in their opener although, four days later, there were concerning signs as they were beaten 1-0 by Nigeria.

Nevertheless, no one could’ve forecast what would happen next, with Ivory Coast steamrollered 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea, a complete collapse only comparable to that of Brazil against Germany at the 2014 World Cup.

This is their biggest home defeat of all-time, only eclipsed in any match by a 5-0 hammering they suffered against Netherlands in a friendly at De Kuip in 2017.

So, finishing third with three points and a goal-difference of -3, the hosts believed themselves to be out, so much so that head coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked.

However, things started to fall in their favour; later that night, Ghana conceded in both the 91st and 94th minutes against Mozambique, thereby throwing away victory, with the Black Stars eliminated on just two points.

Then, well over 48 hours after the Ivorian’s humiliation, Zambia could not find an equaliser against Morocco, also ending up third on two points meaning, remarkable, the hosts had done enough to advance.

So, les Elephants were given an unlikely reprieve, as the fourth best-ranked third-place finisher, but this would see them take on defending champions Senegal in Yamoussoukro.

Now led by rookie interim boss Emerse Fae, Ivory Coast went 1-0 down against Senegal after a mere four minutes, only for Franck Kessie to convert a spot-kick right at the death, forcing penalties.

All five Ivorian players converted from 12 yards as they overcame the holders, but this is nothing compared to their victory over Mali in the quarter-finals in Bouake, a key city during the recent civil war.

Once again, the hosts were dead and buried, seeing Odilon Kossounou sent off in the first half, before Mali broke the deadlock spectacularly from long-range with 20 minutes to play.

Well, Simon Adingra fired home an equaliser in injury time, forcing yet more extra time, before Oumar Diakite’s back-heal flick in the 121st minute snatched victory, shown a second yellow card for his celebration.

This has earned the team the nickname ‘les Revenants’, the zombies, due to the fact, as many observers noted: this team cannot be killed because they are already dead.

Compared to all of that, Ivory Coast’s semi-final victory over DR Congo was rather mundane, with Sebastien Haller’s volley, that was unorthodox to say the least, seeing them claim a 1-0 victory.

Haller would then prove to be the match-winner in Sunday’s final too, scoring another peculiar volley, this with the sole of his boot, sparking uncontainable joy and excitement at Stade Alassane Ouattara.

This is a great story in of itself given that, as recently as July 2022, Haller was diagnosed with a malignant testicular tumour, undergoing two surgeries and four cycles of chemotherapy before officially beating the cancer little over a year ago.

So, while it may not have the classic underdog storyline of some of the other triumphs, given that Ivory Coast were all but out on three occasions, sacked their head coach mid-tournament and had a cancer survivor score the winning goal on home soil, this success is going to take some beating in terms of storylines.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".