IVORY COAST’S route to the Africa Cup of Nations final has been one of the most chaotic in the history of football.
The host nation were left on the brink of elimination following a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea in the final game of their group stage.
They had limped through the group stage to that point, managing a 2-0 victory in their opener against the unfancied Guinea Bissau before losing 1-0 to Nigeria in their second match – a team that were hardly pulling up trees at the time.
But following the 4-0 calamity against Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants became one of the only sides in history to benefit from a mid-tournament new manager bounce.
And Fae was able to immediately benefit from Afcon’s recent expansion from a 16-team tournament to a 24 team event, seeing his side qualify for the round of 16 as one of the best performing third place group stage teams.
They had trailed 1-0 for much of the game before Kessie’s strike, and then managed to hold on to win on penalties against one of the pre-tournament favourites.
The side’s late-late show was repeated again in their quarter-final victory over Mali, when Brighton’s Simon Adingra struck a 90th minute equaliser to make it 1-1.
That was enough to force extra-time and an Oumar Diakite volley in the 122nd minute saw them win the game and advance to the semi-final.
Those last-gasp wins have seen fans of the Ivory Coast refer to their team as “zombies” given the team’s ability to jump back to life when appearing to be dead.
The “zombie” team were able to reach the final in a more straight forward manner on Wednesday, beating DR Congo 1-0 courtesy of a Sebastien Haller strike.
Chelsea legend Didier Drogba led the wild celebrations after his nation booked their spot in the last-two at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpé in Abidjan.
Reflecting on his side’s unlikely route to the final, Fae said: “We are happy, we’re really moved. It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea.
“It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own Afcon.”
Kessie, who’s late goal in the round of 16 epitomises his side’s never-say-die attitude, also reflected on his side’s run after they reached the final, saying: “As long as you still have a five or 10 per cent chance you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful.
“After the Morocco result [which saw the Ivory Coast qualify for the knockouts as a third place team] we knew we had qualified and that changed everything. It gave us the strength we needed, it boosted us. We knew we couldn’t do worse than in the first round.
“We need to keep going like this because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up.”
The final will see the Ivory Coast pitted against Nigeria, who beat them 1-0 in their second group stage game back in January.
But the team that lost that match under Gasset is not the same one that has sprung back to life under Fae, and Elephants fans will be hoping for one last unlikely victory that will see them win a coveted Afcon trophy on home soil.
Looking ahead to the final with Nigeria, Fae said: “We will take stock in the next two days, we will analyse Nigeria, even though we played them in the group stage, we will see the strategy to implement for the final.”
The Ivory Coast will take on Nigeria on Sunday at 8pm UK time.