Sebastien Haller out to win AFCON final after beating cancer in the biggest fight of his life

With wires protruding from his neck, Sebastien Haller completed strength and conditioning exercises in his room at the Munster University Hospital in western Germany.

In July 2022, Haller joined Borussia Dortmund from Dutch club Ajax in a deal worth €31milllion. Two weeks later, at Dortmund’s pre-season training camp in Switzerland, the forward complained of abdominal discomfort. During a consultation with a urologist, a testicular tumour was discovered. Haller spent the next couple of months regularly visiting the hospital to receive treatment, hoping to make a full recovery and, if possible, return to the football pitch.

Now, 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer, Haller will be the focal point of Ivory Coast’s attack when they take on Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final later today (Sunday).

If he leads the host nation to victory, it will cap off a remarkable and inspiring comeback.

Haller joined West Ham United from Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt for a then club-record fee of £45million in July 2019. But he struggled in English football, scoring only 10 Premier League goals in 18 months, and in January 2021, he moved to Ajax for around half the fee that took him to London.

In the Netherlands, where he’d previously played two and a half seasons with Utrecht before joining Frankfurt, he reignited his career.

Ajax won the Dutch title in that 2021-22 season and again a year later with Haller up front. He also matched multiple records in the Champions League, becoming only the second player, after Cristiano Ronaldo, to score in all six of his club’s group-stage games, and the fourth, with Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski, to reach double figures in the competition’s group phase.

This impressive form prompted Dortmund to sign him to replace Manchester City-bound Erling Haaland.

Two weeks after joining the German club, on July 21, 2022, Haller underwent an operation to remove his entire cancerous testicle, which was carried out by Dr Jan Sebastian Groticke. Six days later, he started receiving chemotherapy. A catheter was attached to his body for five days and he was not allowed to leave the hospital bed.

In a documentary by French television company Canal+ called Fight we see Priscilla — Haller’s wife — describing the news he had a tumour as a “nightmare”.

“When (he) told me on the phone, I didn’t believe it — it’s a joke,” she said. “Until he got upset because he takes the blow and on top of that has to convince me. I understood what it was to be really afraid. I was scared and had the fear of my life.”

Haller was determined to play football again as quickly as possible.

His personal trainer, Tanguy Fleury, gave him exercises he could do while cooped up in the hospital. When he was released, they would go for runs in the park together — trying to push his body through the fatigue. French-born Haller visited Cannes in the south of France with a close group of friends, where he played golf and went on bike rides around the town.

On October 17 that year, he attended the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Paris with Priscilla and his siblings Armelle and Sery.

Haller was voted the 13th best player in the world for his achievements with Ajax, and also went up on stage to present an award. His old tight curls and distinctive facial hair were gone, because of the side effects of his treatment. He was encouraged by his idol, former Ivory Coast captain and fellow striker Didier Drogba, to provide an update on his condition.

(Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

“Everything is fine,” Haller said. “I’m here because everything is going as well as it can. It’s important to be involved at such events to show that you’re strong.”

In total, he had two operations and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. The second procedure, which took place a month after that Ballon d’Or appearance, was more dangerous. Dr Groticke and Professor Laura-Maria Krabbe removed the residual findings from the tumour. It took them four hours.

On December 20, he had a check-up at the hospital and the doctors confirmed he was fit and healthy. A few weeks later, Haller flew with his team-mates to Dortmund’s winter training camp in the Spanish resort of Marbella. He told reporters at the beginning of the trip that “(retiring) was never on my mind.”

The forward received a warm round of applause from team-mates, club staff, opposition players and a few hundred supporters when he finally stepped onto the pitch for the first time in a Dortmund shirt on January 10 for a friendly against fellow Germans Fortuna Dusseldorf at Marbella’s Dama de Noche football centre.

“It’s been a dream to play with my team-mates, certainly more fun than doing runs through forests,” he said afterwards.

Three days later, he came on as a substitute and scored a hat-trick in seven minutes in a 6-0 win over Swiss side Basel in another friendly there.

Haller was ready to make his official comeback.

Haller finally made his official debut for Dortmund, and first competitive appearance since recovering from cancer, in a 4-3 victory over Augsburg on January 22 last year. The words “F*CK CANCER” were inscribed on his boots as he came off the bench just past the hour mark.

Two weeks later, the moment he had been waiting for arrived. In the 51st minute of a 5-1 home win against Freiburg, full-back Raphael Guerreiro whipped a cross into the box, Haller snuck in between two defenders and headed the ball into the back of the net in front of over 80,000 supporters at Signal Iduna Park.

He pointed to that message on his boots as part of his celebration. It was all happening on World Cancer Day, February 4 — which made things even more poignant.

“To score today was a great message to everyone who is fighting today or will fight later,” he said. “It gives some hope, some courage. The days after will always be better.

“You only want to score another goal, to have that feeling again. It’s the best feeling. You’re flying. You’re on a cloud. The whole stadium is on fire. Your team-mates, the staff, everyone is as one. It’s a big boost. There’s still a long way to go, but we will walk down that path.”

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(Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

Haller scored eight more times in the Bundesliga that season but missed a penalty on the final day as Dortmund lost out on winning the title, for the first time in 11 years, on goal difference to Bayern Munich when they could only draw 2-2 at home against Mainz.

This campaign has been trickier with Dortmund down in fourth, 15 points behind leaders Bayer Leverkusen domestically, but they are through to the last-16 stage of the Champions League, where they play runaway Dutch league leaders PSV Eindhoven. Haller hasn’t scored for them in 13 appearances since August and had been struggling with an ankle issue before the Africa Cup of Nations.

Indeed, the injury nearly prevented him from playing in the tournament.

He was unavailable for all three of Ivory Coast’s group-stage games and following their 4-0 loss against Equatorial Guinea in the last of them, it appeared they were going to be eliminated from their own tournament. The prospects were so bleak, they fired head coach Jean-Louis Gasset.

It would have been a disappointment for Haller to miss out on such a special occasion in his own country as he is one of its biggest stars and you can see his face on murals and advertising billboards across Abidjan, its largest city. Fortunately for him, once the group phase was completed a few days later, the Ivorians scraped into the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides.

Haller then came off the bench to help them eliminate defending champions Senegal via a penalty shootout in that first knockout tie and featured in their dramatic 2-1 extra-time victory over Mali in the last eight before taking centre-stage in Wednesday’s semi-final against DR Congo.

Ivory Coast were dominating but the match was still 0-0 until, in the 65th minute, Haller volleyed the ball into the ground and it bounced over goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi into the net. It was enough to put the hosts into today’s final.

“I saw the goal he scored and he won’t be pretending that it wasn’t a big stroke of luck, but I look at him as someone who deserves all the luck he’s getting,” said Robert Snodgrass, a former team-mate at West Ham. “I messaged him after the semi-final. He’s a top guy, a proper family man, and if we’re talking about him as a footballer, he’s a fantastic striker, a great No 9.

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A mural of Haller in Abidjan (Jay Harris/The Athletic)

“He’s super-close to (another ex-West Ham team-mate) Arthur Masuaku, who he played against in the semi-final. That will have been a great moment for them. I’d love it for him if he could finish it off in the final now. He’s totally earned it.”

Whatever happens at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan today, Haller should return to club duty in Germany fully fit.

Dortmund go to Wolfsburg next weekend, then visit PSV in the first leg of their Champions League tie the following Tuesday night, and he will be confident of making a bigger impact in the second half of the season.

“His comeback (from cancer) speaks for itself,” Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl told The Athletic. “We are all incredibly happy about the way he’s been able to return to fitness for the Ivory Coast and score the decisive goal in the semi-final.

“The fact that he was called up, even though he had little chance to play before the latter stages, shows you his importance for the team and how big a personality he is. We hope that he will return with the trophy and become as influential for us as he was in the previous season.”

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(Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

At the Palace of Culture in Abidjan on Saturday afternoon, Haller sat next to Ivory Coast’s interim head coach Emerse Fae in front of the media to discuss the final.

Dressed in a crisp white polo shirt with his hair stylishly braided into a bun at the back of his head, he smiled when he spoke about the responsibility and pressure of being the team’s main source of goals, but his expression changed when asked to talk about what he has experienced off the field.

“The last 18 months have been quite challenging for myself and the family,” Haller said. “I just take everything step by step and I just try to enjoy the moment.

“It’s a great moment to be here in front of you, talking about the final of AFCON in my own country. It will take a few months, or a few years, to really realise what happened (to me).”

Whether Haller gets his hands on the trophy or a runners-up medal, he has already won the biggest fight of his life.

(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

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