• Despite being on home soil and having won the continental title nine years ago, the Ivorians only squeezed through the group stage as one of the best third-placed sides before showing increased resilience in the knockout rounds.
• The change in the Ivorians’ mentality has coincided with the arrival of interim coach Emerse Fae, in place of Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset, between the first and second rounds of the tournament.
Ivory Coast are one game away from winning their third continental title, adding to their triumphs in 1992 and 2015.
Ivory Coast midfielder Jean-Michael Seri says the “spirit” in the Elephants squad is what has driven them to the unlikeliest of places in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations final.
Despite being on home soil and having won the continental title nine years ago, the Ivorians only squeezed through the group stage as one of the best third-placed sides prior to showing increased resilience in the knockout rounds.
After beating the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 in Wednesday’s semi-final, the hosts will play Nigeria on Sunday in Abidjan for the chance to lift the trophy for a third time.
“We have this spirit in this group, and this makes the difference in every game,” said Hull City midfielder Seri, praising the “courage and belief we have in each other”.
The change in the Ivorians’ mentality has coincided with the arrival of interim coach Emerse Fae, in place of Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset, between the first and second rounds of the tournament.
With a reputation for discipline, the former international has instilled a sense of solidity and belief in his team, with Fae repeatedly saying that his main task after taking charge was to persuade his players of both their talent and ability to go far in the competition.
Although Ivory Coast’s football federation said it had sacked Gasset, Guy Demel - another ex-international now working under former team-mate Fae — has publicly said the 70-year-old resigned, with BBC Sport Africa understanding he did so to spark a shock in the squad.
Since their two defeats in the group stage, including the galling 4-0 humbling by Equatorial Guinea in what was the Ivorians’ record home - and Nations Cup — loss, the Elephants have shown their mettle in the knockout round when fighting back late against Senegal and Mali.
Those games required a penalty shootout for victory and a 122nd-minute winner respectively but, after beating the Congolese in more straightforward fashion, the work undertaken by Gasset since his appointment in May 2022 has not been forgotten.
“This is the continuation of his work — the group that has been selected was chosen by him,” said midfielder Seko Fofana.
“I honestly think that if he were still here, it would have been the same thing. Today, we are thinking about him a great deal and he is about us.
“We knew that we must also do it for him, and I think that he also participated in this victory.”
Laying ghosts to rest
Gasset’s departure came two days after the loss to Equatorial Guinea which, like all Ivory Coast’s group games, had been played in the Alassane Ouattara Stadium on the northern outskirts of Abidjan.
In their first game back at the stadium after beating Senegal in Yamoussoukro and Mali in Bouake, former AC Milan and Barcelona midfielder Franck Kessie said it was vital the team laid the ghosts of that game to rest.
“We are happy, not because we have reached the final, but because it was at this stadium that we lost 4-0, so we have been talking for two days about the need to show another face,” said the 27-year-old.
“It’s like a dream,” added coach Fae. “When you go back to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea, we were far from imagining that two weeks later we would qualify for the final. I am very happy.”
Thrust into the main role after previously serving as Gasset’s assistant, Fae has the chance to lift the title in only his fourth game in charge in senior management, having previously spent a decade working with Nice’s youth teams prior to leading the reserves of Ligue 1 side Clermont.
The 40-year-old has coped with everything thrown at him so far however, showing boldness when dropping Kessie, among others, in his first game in charge as well as making expert use of his bench in every game.
On Wednesday, he had to reshuffle once again after four players - including captain Serge Aurier and Mali match-winner Oumar Diakite - were missing through suspension.
“In my speech, I made it clear to the squad that I was counting on everyone and that if we wanted to win this competition, we would do it with 27 players and not just 11,” Fae said. “They understood and bought into it.”
Seizing the moment
While DR Congo may have failed in their bid to reach a first final in half a century, with the last of their two titles coming in 1974, the squad are happy that they used their place in the global spotlight to highlight ongoing conflict in the country’s mineral-rich eastern region.
Dozens of armed groups have long plagued the Central African nation’s North Kivu province, battling for control of the land there.
According to the United Nations, the heightened conflict has pushed 6.9 million people to flee their homes - with the organisation saying that DR Congo is facing one of the “largest humanitarian crises in the world”.
During their national anthem that preceded their first defeat of the tournament, Congolese players and coach Sebastien Desabre covered their mouths and pointed to the sides of their heads as they reiterated their call for peace.
“It was a sign for the people in our country, or for eastern Congo, because they have been being killed for 25 years, and we want to show them a sign - because things like that are more important,” said midfielder Charles Pickel.
“We hope it’s really, really powerful because it’s 25 years now - and nobody cares. It hurts every day.”
North Kivu, which has witnessed plenty of recent fighting, is abundant in minerals including gold, diamonds and cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phone, electric vehicles and many models of e-cigarettes - vapes.
Regarding matters on the pitch itself, Pickel was also upset as the Leopards lost their second semi-final this century, having also previously fallen in 2015 to an Ivory Coast side that went on to lift the trophy.
“It’s really difficult to speak because we wanted to go to the final for all our country. It’s really painful and it hurts [but] we have had a really good Nations Cup.”
DR Congo have the opportunity to finish third once again, having also done so in 1998 and 2015, when they face South Africa in Saturday’s third-place play-off.