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Ivory Coast came out on top at the Africa Cup of Nations by defeating Nigeria 2-1

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

While much of the U.S. ground to a halt yesterday to watch the Super Bowl, much of Africa also came to a standstill for the Africa Cup of Nations soccer final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria. NPR's West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu brings us this not entirely neutral report from Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGIC SYSTEM, YEMI ALADE AND MOHAMED RAMADAN SONG, "AKWABA")

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: The Africa Cup of Nations is always an amazing spectacle, but this one has been one of the most surreal and dramatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGIC SYSTEM, YEMI ALADE AND MOHAMED RAMADAN SONG, "AKWABA")

AKINWOTU: Two billion people have watched around the world, a record, and thousands of fans have gathered for the last month in Cote d'Ivoire. The hosts opened the tournament with this song, "Akwaba," meaning welcome in Akan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AKWABA")

MAGIC SYSTEM: (Singing in French).

AKINWOTU: And their team has had the most chaotic tournament. They sacked their coach, were minutes from elimination but have defied odds and willed themselves here. And no one has embodied this more than their 29-year-old striker Sebastien Haller. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2022, and his career was almost over. But after 18 months, he returned to score a winning goal in the last round and is now set to play in a final against Nigeria.

I'm at a packed bar in Lagos, and the carnival vibe here has just completely deflated. Cote d'Ivoire are winning 2-1. We're in the dying minutes of the game. And of course, it was Sebastien Haller who scored the winning goal, just capping off one of the most incredible football stories in this tournament.

And there have been poignant moments, too. Before their semifinal match, players from the Democratic Republic of Congo covered their mouths and pointed their hands to their heads in the shape of a gun during their national anthem. This was to draw attention to the violence that has overwhelmed eastern DRC, and it was a reminder of how sport is often the stage for powerful political expressions and how it can move people.

MIROBA ALA-LADIYA: I got my whole face painted because I was invested in them winning.

AKINWOTU: During the game, 28-year-old Miroba Ala-ladiya (ph) summed up what the tournament has meant for Nigeria and beyond.

ALA-LADIYA: Amazing football naturally is a sport that brings people together, so I think this has definitely been a unifying period for us.

AKINWOTU: So that's it. Cote d'Ivoire have won just one of the most memorable Afcon tournament in my lifetime. The vibe here is pretty sad. People are streaming out. The DJ is playing Burna Boy's "Last Last." People are joking that we've chopped our breakfast, as one of the lyrics in the song goes. But, of course, far away from here, elation in Cote d'Ivoire, just an incredible, incredible comeback victory.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LAST")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) I need igbo and shayo. I need igbo and shayo. I need igbo and shayo, shayo, shayo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.