Following an embarrassing defeat in front of their own supporters in their final group game versus Equatorial Guinea, not many would have believed that Ivory Coast would go on to become the first host nation to win AFCON since 2006. But they did just that, against the odds.
After a sensational 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, Ivory Coast were finally crowned as winners after coming from behind to beat Nigeria 2-1 in Sunday’s final. It was just their third AFCON success after previous titles in 1992 and 2015, but neither of those had nearly as much drama as this one.
They certainly did it the hard way, but in lifting the Africa Cup of Nations trophy, Ivory Coast became the first host nation to win the tournament since Egypt in 2006 – that ended a run of eight AFCON tournaments and nine host nations without success.
It was a tournament of two halves for the hosts. Despite winning the opening game 2-0 against Guinea-Bissau, the group stage was largely a disaster for Ivory Coast. That opening victory turned out to be more down to the opposition’s weakness – Guinea-Bissau were one of only two teams at AFCON 2023 to lose every single match – than Ivorian strength.
A 1-0 defeat to Nigeria followed on Matchday 2 before the nadir of Ivory Coast’s international football history looked set to send them out of the group stage in their own tournament. The 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in the final group game was their record defeat on home soil and was arguably one of the biggest shocks in AFCON history. The underdogs were ruthless in Abidjan, constantly catching Ivory Coast on the counter and scoring four times from 10 shots. Two of Equatorial Guinea’s goals came via eventual top scorer Emilio Nsue, who ended up as the oldest Golden Boot winner at an AFCON (34 years old) since Roger Milla in 1988 (35).
Jean-Louis Gasset was sensationally sacked the following morning, despite Ivory Coast having the lifeline of a third-place finish potentially sneaking them into the knockout stages. That lifeline eventually arrived, as disastrous final group games sent Ghana and Algeria home and meant Ivory Coast went through as one of the best third-placed teams, even though they had just three points.
Emerse Faé – one of Gasset’s assistants – was promoted to interim manager and it felt like the Ivorians had nothing to lose. The Opta supercomputer predictions mirrored that feeling at the time of the change.
After kicking off the tournament as second favourites by the supercomputer at 12.1% behind only reigning champions Senegal (12.8%), those chances had dropped to 3.9% when they discovered they would face defending champions Senegal in the last 16. But they saw them off and then, amazingly, at 1-0 down to Mali in the 90th minute of their quarter-final tie, their chances had fallen below 1%. But until that’s zero and a team is knocked out of the tournament, the seemingly impossible can’t be written off.
Faé went on to achieve what few thought was possible and led his nation to their first AFCON title since 2015. In doing so, he became the first person to become a team’s coach after the start of the tournament and win that same tournament in Africa Cup of Nations history.
They weren’t far off Egypt’s AFCON record from the 2021 tournament, when they finished as runners-up to Senegal having played 801 minutes and 49 seconds of match time (including all added time and extra time). This Ivory Coast side topped the minutes played ranking for the 2023 edition with 776 minutes and 48 seconds – 13 minutes, 23 seconds longer than South Africa in this edition and over an hour more than Senegal had to play on the way to winning the previous edition (704:39).
But it was Ivory Coast’s ability to time their goals to perfection that helped them seal the title. In the last-16 tie against Senegal they equalised in the 86th minute before going on to win a penalty shootout. In the quarter-final against Mali, Simon Adingra scored their equaliser in second-half added time before scoring the winner via Oumar Diakité with almost the final kick of extra-time. Sebastian Haller was the hero in the semi-final and final, as the Borussia Dortmund striker put them into the lead in the 65th and 81st minutes, respectively. The final saw them in a losing position for nearly twice as long as they led (29:18 vs 16:55).
Overall, at AFCON 2023, Ivory Coast spent only 18.8% of match time in a winning position – 145 minutes, 39 seconds in total. That was exactly half the proportion of time spent winning as Angola (37.6%) and less than half that of Nigeria (39.4%), Morocco (51.5%) and Senegal (70.0%).
Incredibly, the hosts spent 95 minutes and 50 seconds longer in a losing position than they did a winning position at the tournament. To put that into a little more context, Senegal – who Ivory Coast knocked out in the last 16 on penalties – only played four matches at the tournament but led their opponents for 310 minutes and 10 seconds in total. That was 164 minutes and 31 seconds longer in a leading position than Ivory Coast at AFCON 2023.
Overall, in the knockout stages, Ivory Coast led their opponents for just 51 minutes and six seconds across 470 minutes and 56 seconds of action – that’s 10.8% of match time in the lead over four knockout games on the way to winning the title. Peak tournament football.
Overall, including all added time and extra time at the tournament, the Ivory Coast attack was hardly threatening. They averaged 0.96 expected goals (xG) per 90 – the 13th best at the finals. They were slightly more impressive in defence, giving up just 0.80 xG per 90 to opponents to give them the seventh-best average at the tournament.
So, did Ivory Coast’s success at AFCON 2023 come down to a lot of luck? It’s sometimes said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and there’s definitely a sense of that when analysing their success.
No, they didn’t impress that much at the tournament, but when opportunities came their way in front of goal, they took them… and with impeccable timing.