SEBASTIEN HALLER ON X/GETTY IMAGES Image caption: Sebastien Haller started treatment for testicular cancer in July 2022 and is now on the cusp of helping Ivory Coast win a third continental title

When Sebastien Haller scored the goal which sent Ivory Coast through to the final of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, the striker kept alive the Elephants’ chances of what had seemed an unlikely triumph and wrote another chapter in his own remarkable story.

Having been on the brink of a group-stage exit and then making dramatic progress to the last four, the West Africans are now one game away from their third continental title.

“We knew we had the potential to succeed and go far in the competition,” Haller said after netting the winner against DR Congo on Wednesday.

“The quality on the field is all over. There were lots of things missing from the start of the competition, and we have been trying to find the things that were missing to perform.”

The Ivorians will now face Nigeria in the final in Abidjan on Sunday (20:00 GMT) but, in some ways, Haller is lucky to be back on the pitch as a professional.

Just over a year ago Haller scored his first goal for Borussia Dortmund to wild acclaim, as he was buried beneath a sea of yellow-clad team-mates.

The goal came eight months after he had signed for the German club, but the outpouring of emotion was not just that he had finally scored.

For in July 2022, just two weeks after joining the Bundesliga side, Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“Of course, you realise it is something really serious that is happening, that a lot of things can change,” Haller told BBC Sport last year.

“But the urologist helped me not to be scared. He said I could heal well. I took all his words for granted.”

Coming back from cancer

It was only in early January 2023 that Haller returned to full training, after two surgeries and various rounds of chemotherapy, making his belated debut later that month.

His goal against Freiburg came, in one of those weird coincidences which the universe has a habit of providing, on World Cancer Day itself.

Fast forward to this January and injury, albeit much milder, was again preventing the former West Ham and Eintracht Frankfurt forward from featuring for the Ivorians as they hosted the delayed 2023 Nations Cup.

After damaging his ankle on 19 December, the 29-year-old was not fit enough to make the squad for the Elephants’ first three games.

But that paved the way for his return as the conquering hero given their calamitous group stage, in which they lost twice, including a heaviest ever home – and Nations Cup finals – defeat when losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea.

Ivory Coast sacked coach Jean-Louis Gasset but then squeezed through into the knockout rounds as a best third-placed side.

“After the big defeat against Equatorial Guinea, we had no choice,” Haller said.

“We’ve come back from a long way.

“There were words, moments, which were not easy for the players, staff and everybody [but] which were necessary.”

And, after the team had scored just twice in the group stage, the return of Haller was ever more important.

This, after all, was a man who became the second player after Cristiano Ronaldo to score in all six Champions League group games in 2021-22 for Dutch side Ajax, before eclipsing the Portuguese to became the fastest player to reach 10 Champions League goals in history.

A crucial impact for Elephants

Sebastien Haller in action for Ivory Coast against Senegal at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations
Image caption: Haller helped Ivory Coast past defending Nations Cup champions Senegal in the last 16

In the hosts’ epic last-16 clash against defending champions Senegal, Haller was thrown on late in normal time, where his physical presence, hold-up skills and direct play proved crucial.

It was his perfectly weighted and probing through ball which found Nicolas Pepe, who was duly upended to allow the Ivorians to score from the spot and take the game into extra time.

Haller then played his part by netting in the shootout, with the Ivorians prevailing 5-4 to knock out the holders.

Against Mali in an equally thrilling quarter-final, Haller was again a substitute – but thrown on at half-time as interim coach Emerse Fae gambled with his team down to 10 men.

The former France youth international almost settled the match in extra-time when heading a perfect Wilfried Singo cross against the bar, but it was Oumar Diakite who netted the dramatic 122nd-minute winner to set up a semi-final meeting against DR Congo.

Before his injury, Haller’s international form – three goals in three games – had been far better than at Dortmund this season, where he has failed to score in 11 league games (despite having rebounded well last season with nine goals in 19).

He seemingly seethed with anger against the Central Africans when wasting a header just before half-time from a glorious delivery from the impressive Singo again.

Celebrations and revenge

Sebastien Haller scores against DR Congo
Image caption: Haller scored the only goal in the semi-final against DR Congo with what was his first shot on target at the 2023 Afcon finals

But midway through the second period at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, the tall striker found the net with an unorthodox finish.

Haller volleyed a deep cross from Max-Alain Gradel into the ground, over DR Congo keeper Lionel Mpasi and just inches under the bar in a ping-pong style finish, to provide a ‘Haller-lujah’ moment for Elephants fans as the tense deadlock in Abidjan was finally broken.

Cue raucous celebrations and a barely-believable roar once again – this time across an entire country, and not just inside a stadium which had former Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba in attendance.

“It’s certain the public push us in every moment. When the public is there and make noise and push us, that makes the difference,” Haller said.

Born in Paris to a French dad and Ivorian mum, Haller played at every youth level for France – from Under-16 all the way to Under-21 – but in 2020, he pledged his senior international future to his mother’s land.

And she and her nation of 30 million are happy he did as his strike against the Leopards took the Ivorians to the final on home soil for the first time.

Now comes a rematch with Nigeria, 24 days on from when the Super Eagles beat Ivory Coast 1-0 in the group stage.

“It’s a final and you’re there to win it. We’ll analyse everything in order to gain our revenge,” Haller said.

As unrealistic as it may have been after the group stage, the prospect of Haller helping the Elephants to their first Nations Cup title since 2015 is now very palpable.

And for the striker himself, just over a year and a half since his cancer diagnosis, his next game could be his most memorable.

Sebastien Haller celebrates his goal against DR Congo
Image caption: Haller has scored nine goals in 25 international outings for Ivory Coast