A continental champion, a national hero.
Sebastien Haller’s right boot got the vital flick at the perfect time and ten minutes later, Ivory Coast had completed the most remarkable and improbable of tournament turnarounds, winning the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil after beating Nigeria 2-1.
It marked the most momentous on-pitch moment of the 29-year-old striker’s career thus far and took him to double figures in international goals. And yet, Haller’s late winner, his moment of African immortality, might never have happened at all.
And not for the most obvious reason, the one you’d immediately expect.
In November 2016, a full four years before making his senior international debut for Ivory Coast, Haller hit a hat-trick in an U21 fixture. Nothing too unusual there for a talented attacker on the up – except, this was against Ivory Coast, while still playing for France and progressing through the youth teams.
For a player whose celebrations are typically fairly understated – usually a calm demeanour, perhaps arms outstretched – those two goals marked rare moments when the mask slipped a little more: the hat-trick strike in that U21 game of yesteryear prompted a bit of a smile and a fist pump; the winner in Abidjan to defeat the Super Eagles yielded a beating of his own chest as he jogged down the byline.
And that pair are joined by another goal celebrated in unusually emphatic style: his first Borussia Dortmund goal in February 2023, one which was perhaps as much relief and release as anything else – for it came on World Cancer Day just a few weeks after being given the all-clear, following a six-month battle against testicular cancer.
Therein lies the real story of Haller’s own personal comeback trail, the biggest sliding doors moment in a career seemingly full of them.
After breaking through into senior football at Auxerre, his journey around the European leagues has seen two stops in the Eredivisie, one in the Premier League and now two in the Bundesliga. After Utrecht, it was at Eintracht Frankfurt he really made his name, part of a free-scoring triumvirate which helped the team win the German Cup – the DFB-Pokal – for the first time in 30 years. Haller was then tempted away by a big-money move to West Ham United, and though 18 months in east London didn’t see his best on show too often, a permanent switch to Ajax soon saw him back on the scoresheet on a regular basis.
That move wasn’t without note either, mind: despite spending a club record €22.5m on him in the January, an administrative oversight meant Ajax inexplicably forgot to register him for European competitions that season. Still, two Eredivisie titles followed, and so too did transfer interest once more – but just weeks after moving to Dortmund, prolonged illness and fatigue led Haller to seek medical advice and, eventually, the tumour was revealed.
Six months of treatment, including two operations and chemotherapy, followed. And, eventually, the positive outcome hoped for: the all-clear, the return to full training, a long-awaited first competitive game. And then goal.
“To score today was a great message to everyone who is fighting today or will fight later. It gives some hope, some courage, that’s it. The days after will always be better,” he said after that first header in yellow, scored while wearing boots with the message “F*** cancer” on them.
At this point, another much earlier message from Haller – asked about possible regrets over his international switch from France to Ivory Coast – perhaps rings truer than ever.
“[I have] None. Most of the time, I try to have an approach without any regret,” he said. “And when I do something, I try to follow it through. I try to go flat-out and I never look back. I wasn’t selected [for France], so […] I made that decision and I’m happy with it today.”
Attacking the situation head-on and not looking back: It appears to be a theme with him, an approach which has served him well in tough times on the pitch and much tougher times off it. Another interview in the aftermath of that first Dortmund goal made it clear that he wouldn’t be lingering on what had already happened, wouldn’t let it dictate what was yet to come.
“It’s also important for me that, at some point, you need to let it go, you need to turn the page. This is something I will do quickly, I hope, because even if it is a part of my story, a part of my life, you need to change things. You don’t want to get stuck.”
In that regard, it’s definitely mission accomplished.
He might be from the south of Paris originally, but Ivory Coast very much counts as home soil these days for him. And after Haller’s exploits in the Afcon final, he can very much consider one chapter closed, another one written and yet more pages surely still ahead to write.