Hollywood screenwriters would find their passage to potential glory barely plausible, but the Ivorians are one game away from the continent’s top prize despite being on the verge of elimination on several occasions over the last month.
The Elephants scraped through the group phase and staged thrilling come-from-behind wins in the last-1. The did the same in the quarter-final and are now looking to complete one of the great comebacks in the tournament’s storied history.
Ivory Coast’s caretaker coach Emerse Fae said “I don’t have the words, I still have trouble taking it all in.”
Fae was catapulted into the job after 70-year-old Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked as the Ivorians waited for three days to find out whether they would qualify from the group phase as one of the best third-placed sides.
After the Ivorians secured qualification past the group stages, they went on to beat the reigning champions, Senegal on penalties.
Despite being down to 10 men in the quarterfinals, the AFCON host team snatched a win over neighbors Mali. They equalized in the 90th minute and then netted the winner at the end of extra time.
“It's incredible, to reach the final in your country’s tournament. It’s an immense joy. The players have done extraordinary things,” Fae said.
The final will be a repeat match of the group encounter between Ivory Coast and Nigeria’s Super Eagles. The Ivorians lost in a cagey contest was decided by a penalty, only awarded after a lengthy Virtual Assistant Referee review.
Nigeria employed a clever tactical plan, which included an uncharacteristic five-man defense and extensive use of the flanks to attack.
Their X-factor, however, remains striker Victor Osimhen, who has had an outstanding tournament despite scoring only once.
The reigning CAF Footballer of the Year has an eye-catching work rate and is a constant menace for opposing defenders, however he struggled with a stomach complaint in the semi-final match against South Africa.
The Super Eagles were taken to extra time and penalties on Wednesday before securing their final berth while the Ivorians beat the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 in the regulation 90 minutes, handing them a slight advantage.
With the tournament being played in hot temperatures and with high levels of humidity, fatigue has been noticeable for teams playing again a few days after being forced into extra time.
The tournament was also marked by a series of early shock results that created excitement that has barely waned over the last month of football.
Ivory Coast is the first host since Egypt in 2006 to reach the final. The West African team is chasing a third Cup of Nations success after winning in 1992 and 2015.
Their opponents, Nigeria have won three titles, the last of which was in 2013.