Redemption songs for Harjas and Haller, and the beauty of sport

Sebastian Haller and ivory Coast are AFCON 2024 Champions (Image: CAF Twitter/X)

Sebastian Haller had just sealed the most important move of his career, from Ajax to Borussia Dortmund, when he was diagnosed with a malignant testicular tumour. Scorer of 13 goals for the French U-21s, he had made his senior debut for Ivory Coast – his mother’s country – just 18 months earlier, as they sought to rebuild after the Didier Drogba years.

At 28, Haller should have been enjoying his prime years. Instead, he had to go under the knife twice and withstand four cycles of chemotherapy. But by January 2023, he was back playing again, and on February 4, he scored in a win over high-flying Freiburg.

Why do we even watch sport? Those that have reported on it for decades often ask themselves that question. Yes, sport can be life in miniature. But often, its magic lies in the opportunities for redemption that it throws up – the opportunity to make amends on the big stage after equally public failures.

For Haller and Ivory Coast, the African Cup of Nations, which concluded in the early hours of Monday morning, was all about second chances. After a 1-0 defeat to Nigeria in their second match, they were pulverized 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea in their final group game. It was one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s 67-year history, and it meant that the hosts were the very last team to sneak into the last 16.

Before the knockouts began, there was further turmoil, with Jean-Louis Gasset, their French coach, axed. Emerse Fae, who had played alongside Drogba and was Gasset’s assistant, was asked to take charge of the misfiring side.

From there, they lived by the seat of their pants. A late Franck Kessie equaliser from the spot took Senegal, the defending champions, to penalties. And with all five Ivorian takers perfect from 12 yards, Ivory Coast had somehow made their way into the last eight. There, they needed a 90th minute leveller from Brighton’s Simon Adingra to take the match against Mali to extra time. With penalties looming, Oumar Diakite scored to get the parties started in the city of Bouake.

With the trophy (Image: CAF)

Haller’s goal took them past DR Congo in the semi-final, but when William Troost-Ekong opened the scoring in the final with a superb header, Nigeria’s Super Eagles seemed on course for a first continental title since 2013. However, an unmarked Kessie equalised in the second half, and with less than 10 minutes of normal time remaining, Adingra broke free down the left.

The cross was perfect, right into the six-yard box, but Haller had to contort like Rudolf Nureyev at his balletic best to toe-poke the ball into the far corner. Many of the 57,094 inside the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan were in tears at the final whistle, with Haller having elevated himself into the pantheon previously occupied by Joel Tiehi –

hero of their first Cup of Nations triumph in 1992 – and Drogba.

A few hours earlier, towards the southern tip of the continent, Harjas Singh, all of 19 years and 11 days old, had walked out to bat in the U-19 World Cup final with Australia in a bit of strife. His scores in the competition made for dismal reading – 4, 6, 17, 1, 16, 5. Another team would probably have benched him. But Australia’s junior selectors and team management, perhaps influenced by a century he scored in an U-19 Ashes Test last September, kept faith.

Harjas repaid that belief with a stroke-filled 64-ball 55, which included three sixes and three fours. His partnership with Ryan Hicks put the pressure back on India, and set the stage for Oliver Peake’s late cameo. At the end, as Australia celebrated an ultimately comprehensive victory, the cameras kept panning to his happy family in the stands. For Inderjit Singh, a handy boxer who left Chandigarh and emigrated in 2000, and Avinder Kaur, a long jumper, their son’s match-turning hand was vindication of the choices they had made a generation earlier.

Not everyone gets to script fairy tales like Haller and Harjas did on Sunday. But the fact that sport gives you the opportunity to do so is why we can’t tear our eyes away.


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