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APPHOTOS: Africa Cup soccer spectacle ends after a month of thrills and upsets

Ivory Coast 's Seko Fofana, top, duels for the ball with Nigeria's Victor Osimhen during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast ‘s Seko Fofana, top, duels for the ball with Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (ֱ) — Many are calling it the best-ever Africa Cup of Nations. The 34th edition of the biennial soccer tournament served up more goals, plenty of late drama, and surprising twists and turns as underdogs had their day.

It finished with a happy ending for host nation Ivory Coast after its remarkable path to the final, including near-elimination in the group stage.

The Elephants defeated Nigeria 2-1 in Sunday’s final in the 60,000-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium to set off unbridled celebrations across the country. It affirmed locals’ belief that God was helping the team.

South Africa's goalkeeper Ronwen Williams saves a penalty from Cape Verde's Bebé during a penalty shootout at the end of the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

South Africa’s goalkeeper Ronwen Williams saves a penalty from Cape Verde’s Bebé during a penalty shootout at the end of the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Associated Press photographers were there from the start to the finish to capture all the drama, pride and passion.

The supporters helped create a vibrant spectacle with ceaseless dancing to drumbeats and vocal support. Many painted themselves in their countries’ bright colors, others wore costumes, and a festival feeling developed among rival fans.

The same could not be said of accredited media at the tournament. The Confederation of African Football condemned journalists’ “unbecoming and unprofessional” behavior after several fights among media around games and inappropriate celebrations in the media tribune.

DR Congo's Gael Kakuta, right, battles for the ball with Ivory Coast's Simon Adingra during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

DR Congo’s Gael Kakuta, right, battles for the ball with Ivory Coast’s Simon Adingra during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Few could have imagined Ivory Coast reaching the final after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea left it on the brink of elimination. But highly unlikely results in other groups favored the home team. Ghana’s late collapse — conceding two goals in injury time to Mozambique — and a subsequent win for Morocco over Zambia meant Ivory Coast squeezed into the knockout round.

It prompted the Ivorian soccer federation, which had already fired its coach, to look for another, but it failed to “borrow” the France woman’s team’s coach for the rest of the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s interim coach Emerse Faé did not allow the clear lack of confidence from his federation affect him as he quietly prepared the team for the knockout round. And so the country’s scarcely believable run began.

Guinea's Mouctar Diakhaby, left, heads the ball during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Guinea’s Mouctar Diakhaby, left, heads the ball during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria’s progress was much more straightforward as Super Eagles coach José Peseiro banked on defense for success. Nigeria did not concede a goal in four games straight after an opening 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea, and goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was the hero with two saves in the penalty shootout win over South Africa in the semifinal.

Nigeria star Victor Osimhen, the African player of the year, only scored one goal. The Napoli forward was unlucky to have three ruled out over the tournament, and his inspirational performances helped his team to the final.

Equatorial Guinea forward Emilio Nsue finished the tournament as top-scorer with five goals. Nsue is a 34-year-old right back for a third-division team in Spain.

It wasn’t the only surprise.

Guinea's Antoine Conte reacts at the end of the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Guinea’s Antoine Conte reacts at the end of the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Seven-time champion Egypt flopped as it failed to win a game despite sacrificing a cow.

Defending champion Senegal was knocked out by Ivory Coast in the round of 16.

Five-time winner Cameroon, four-time champion Ghana, and former winners Algeria and Tunisia were all been knocked out before the quarterfinal stage, which had a fresh-looking lineup compared to the last edition.

None of the eight quarterfinalists from the previous Africa Cup in Cameroon — Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon, Egypt and Morocco — made it to the last eight this time.

Nigeria's players celebrate winning the penalty shootout during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria’s players celebrate winning the penalty shootout during the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Congo made to the semifinals despite only winning one game in regular time. The Congolese players drew attention to the humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo with a gesture before their semifinal against Ivory Coast.

South Africa also made it to the final four by upsetting APCup semifinalist Morocco on the way. Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Ronwen Williams followed up with four penalty saves in a shootout win over Cape Verde in the quarterfinals.

The tournament was tough on the men in charge. Egypt coach Rui Vitória, Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset and Ghana coach Chris Hughton were all fired. The Tanzania coach was suspended after one game, the Gambia coach resigned, the Senegal coach was hospitalized, the Tunisia coach’s contract ended, and Burkina Faso has a coaching vacancy.

A Nigeria supporter shouts before the African Cup of Nations semi final soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

A Nigeria supporter shouts before the African Cup of Nations semi final soccer match between Nigeria and South Africa, at the Peace of Bouake stadium in Bouake Bouake, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

The futures of Cameroon coach Rigobert Song and Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi remain uncertain. Algerian Football Federation president Wali Sadi said he agreed to end Belmadi’s contract, but Belmadi was reportedly unhappy with that announcement and is yet to finalize his departure.

Samuel Eto’o, president of the Cameroon Football Federation, offered his resignation if other members followed suit. They declined.

South Africa's Mothobi Mvala, left, heads the ball as he defends against Cape Verde's Jovane Cabral during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

South Africa’s Mothobi Mvala, left, heads the ball as he defends against Cape Verde’s Jovane Cabral during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

A Congolese supporter reacts before the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

A Congolese supporter reacts before the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

A young man watches the ball after diving while playing football on a dusty field in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

A young man watches the ball after diving while playing football on a dusty field in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast players, top center, celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 1-0. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players, top center, celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match between Ivory Coast and DR Congo, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 1-0. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

A member of security sits in the stands as the sun sets in the background before the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

A member of security sits in the stands as the sun sets in the background before the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

DR Congo's Arthur Masuaku celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's third goal during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

DR Congo’s Arthur Masuaku celebrates with teammates after scoring his side’s third goal during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between DR Congo and Guinea, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

A woman walks past a portrait of Ivory Coast Soccer player Wilfried Zaha on the street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

A woman walks past a portrait of Ivory Coast Soccer player Wilfried Zaha on the street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

South Africa's head coach Hugo Broos is lifted up by players as they celebrate winning the penalty shootout during the African Cup of Nations third place soccer match between South Africa and DR Congo, at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

South Africa’s head coach Hugo Broos is lifted up by players as they celebrate winning the penalty shootout during the African Cup of Nations third place soccer match between South Africa and DR Congo, at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 2-1. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 2-1. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria's Ola Aina reacts after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 2-1. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria’s Ola Aina reacts after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Ivory Coast won the match 2-1. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria's Victor Osimhen, right, is challenged by Ivory Coast 's Serge Aurier during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, right, is challenged by Ivory Coast ‘s Serge Aurier during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast 's Franck Kessie celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast ‘s Franck Kessie celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast 's Franck Kessie celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast ‘s Franck Kessie celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate their win after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate their win after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast 's Karim Konate, top, and Nigeria's Calvin Bassey battle for the ball during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast ‘s Karim Konate, top, and Nigeria’s Calvin Bassey battle for the ball during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast 's Sebastien Haller, second right, scores his side's second goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast ‘s Sebastien Haller, second right, scores his side’s second goal during the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

Ivory Coast players celebrate after winning the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (APPhoto/Sunday Alamba)

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