YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In a post-game news conference after Sunday’s Super Bowl, quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the victorious Kansas City Chiefs delivered the sort of thank-you to the Almighty which has become fairly pro forma in American sports.
“I give God the glory,” Mahomes said. “He challenged us to make us better.”
In Ivory Coast, however, which also won a major championship Sunday night, Bishop Joseph Kakou Aka went to the next level of theological specificity in the wake of a similary big win, explicitly comparing his country’s upset victory in the African Cup of Nations to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Ivory Coast died and on the third day, and Ivory Coast was resurrected,” an enthused Aka said afterwards. “After the resurrection, Ivory Coast cannot die again.”
After losing matches they were expected to win, finishing third in the group stage and even firing their coach during the tournament in what seemed an act of resignation, Ivory Coast nevertheless bounced back to win Sunday’s finale over heavily favored Nigeria 2-1.
Aka wasn’t the only Catholic in Ivory Coast to see the hand of God in the upset result.
Shortly before the final, Catholic faithful in the Saint Paul Church in the national capital of Yamoussoukro wore orange, the color of the national team, the “Eagles,” to Sunday Mass in a sign of support.
Father Aristide Djedje said that “the way the Elephants progressed is a miracle.”
If sporting contests were determined strictly on the basis of Christian statistics, then Nigeria should have won the African Cup of Nations, the premier soccer competition on the continent, going away. Almos half the population of Africa’s most populous nation are Christian, almost 100 million souls, while the Christian community in the much smaller Ivory Coast is just ten percent of that total, around 11 million people.
Despite the theological conundrums involved in claiming that God might prefer one nation over another in a soccer tournament, Aka has no doubts.
“We thank God for giving us the grace to organize and to win,” he said. “May His name be blessed.”
Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, had been heavily favored to win Africa’s greatest sports jamboree following a series of solid performances in the run-up to Sunday’s final, held at the Olympic Stadium in Ebimpé, Ivory Coast. It would have been Nigeria’s fourth time hoisting the trophy.
Instead, the Elephants of Ivory Coast came from behind to secure an improbable 2-1 win, their third title win after 1992 and 2015.
Eagles Captain William Troost-Ekong put Nigeria in the lead early on with a thumping header, but goals from Franck Kessie and Sebastian Haller condemned Nigeria to their fifth defeat in eight appearances in the Cupo of Nations final.
The fact that Ivory Coast was in the final at all was fairly remarkable.
In their last group game against low-rated Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast fell apart, receiving a 4-0 bashing, which was to be the worst defeat for a host nation of any major tournament since Brazil was crushed 7-0 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal. Ivory Coast also lost their first match to their eventual final challenger Nigeria, falling 0-1.
Ivory Coast came third in the group stage, and depended on Zambia knocking out Morocco to continue to the knockout stage. Before that match, their 70-year-old Coach Jean-Louis Gasset was fired amid disappointment over the results.
Interim manager Emerse Fae’s who had never managed a major team before, was tapped to take over, in what many observers believed was a de facto choice to “wait ‘till next time.”
Fae, however, didn’t see it that way.
“We were close to humiliation but when we had a second chance, we were determined not to waste it,” he said.
Under his stewardship, the Elephants never lost again, beating defending champions Senegal through penalties in the quarter finals before dispatching the Democratic Republic of Congo by a single goal in the semifinals.
“It was the tournament of hospitality and the country of hospitality has won it,” Aka said of the result.
In a February 12 statement, members of the Episcopal Conference of Ivory Coast (CECCI) “congratulate the Elephants of Ivory Coast on their fine victory.”
The belief in God’s hand directing the Elephant’s victory was felt across the country even before the final was played.
“It’s God’s miracle,” said Yamoussoukro resident Diakite.
Ivory Coast is the second host country to win the tournament after Egypt lifted the coveted trophy as host in 2006. The Elephants made away with a prize money worth $7 million, with Nigeria claiming $4 million for its second-place finish.