July 18, 2022 is a date Sebastien Haller will never forget.
It was supposed to be a normal training day as Borussia Dortmund began their pre-season tour of Switzerland, with Haller joining the squad less than two weeks after arriving from Ajax for £31million.
But it proved to be anything but, as the Ivorian striker reported feeling unwell in the morning, and after further examinations he was diagnosed with a testicular tumour, that was later confirmed to be cancer, just hours later.
Fast forward 18 months, and he is about to play in the Africa Cup of Nations final for Ivory Coast against Nigeria.
Yet representing his country on the biggest stage was unthinkable in the hours after his devastating diagnosis.
Sebastien Haller is about to play in an Africa Cup of Nations final this weekend for Ivory Coast
But only 18 months ago he was in a hospital bed after being diagnosed with testicular cancer
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Well-wishes poured in for the popular forward, with Ajax’s players holding up their former team-mate’s shirt number before beating Red Bull Salzburg in a friendly the following day.
Haller wasn’t kidding himself, though, and knew he had a huge battle on his hands.
Still, he was determined to stay positive, and later that week he was pictured in hospital giving a thumbs-up after beginning treatment.
‘I wanted to let you know that Step 1 has been completed!’ he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. It was clear that Haller had every intention of fighting his way through right from the start.
Just over a month later, Haller appeared at an awards ceremony after finishing the previous season as the Eredivisie’s top scorer at Ajax.
In his acceptance speech, Haller thanked his friends and family for their unwavering support after starting chemotherapy, as he admitted ‘I’m lucky to have people around me’.
He wiped away tears on an emotional evening, as he delivered a powerful message of defiance.
Haller’s former Ajax team-mates held a up a shirt to show their support after his diagnosis
Haller appeared at an awards ceremony a month after his diagnosis, and wiped away tears as he gave an emotional acceptance speech
He thanked his wife, Priscilla (right), for her support after beginning chemotherapy
After undergoing two operations, speculation ramped up towards the end of 2022 linking Haller with a return to football.
Surely not? Just six months after being diagnosed with cancer, is that even possible?
Haller proved it was.
He was back on the training pitch in the opening days of January 2023, and immediately targeted getting himself into shape to hit the ground running once the Bundesliga resumed after the winter break later that month.
After finding the net in some warm-up friendlies to show he hadn’t lost his goalscoring touch, and wearing boots with message ‘f*** cancer’ on them as a reminder of what he’d battled through, Haller was thrown straight back into the team by manager Edin Terzic.
He got his first competitive goal after treatment against Freiburg on February 4, which happened to be World Cancer Day. The stars had aligned for Haller, and he was adamant he wouldn’t be stopped.
Haller’s triumphant comeback on the pitch was only a small part of his story, though, as he admitted he was ‘proud’ of his return, while Rio Ferdinand labelled him a ‘trailblazer’ for raising awareness of the need for men to get themselves checked following his shock diagnosis.
Haller would have been forgiven for taking his time to get back up to speed after half a year away, but his team were in the midst of a title race with Bayern Munich and needed their striker to keep them in touch.
The former West Ham man did exactly that, producing the goods time and time again as he scored nine goals in 19 league games.
Haller wore boots with the message ‘f*** cancer’ on them as he returned to the pitch last year
Haller scored his first competitive goal after treatment for Dortmund on World Cancer Day
But Dortmund went on to just miss out on the title, and Haller claimed it hurt worse than being told he had cancer
This included five in three matches prior to the last game of the season, but Dortmund could only draw 2-2 with Mainz on the final day, as they agonisingly missed out on the title on goal difference to Bayern.
Haller would later claim that missing out on the title was worse than hearing he had cancer.
‘It really is true. The missed title hurts me more than the cancer diagnosis at the time,’ the 29-year-old said.
‘If you are sick, there is nothing you can do about it. You have to accept it and move through it. But we had the title in our own hands, we could influence everything ourselves.
‘In that case you have to painfully accept that you may have made mistakes or wrong decisions.’
It was a big statement to make, but one that highlighted his hunger for silverware, and AFCON was his next chance to take home a trophy.
But not much has gone smoothly for Haller over the last 18 months, and he did not play a single minute in the group stages due to an ankle injury.
His tournament could have been over before it even began as Ivory Coast lost two of their three matches, but somehow squeaked through to the knockout stages thanks to being one of the best third-placed teams.
Ivory Coast sacked manager Jean-Louis Gasset at the end of the AFCON group stages, despite progressing to the knockout rounds
Having sacked their manager Jean-Louis Gasset, Ivory Coast entered their last-16 clash against defending champions Senegal as underdogs, but upset the odds to triumph on penalties.
Haller came off the bench in the second half and converted his spot-kick to spark jubilant scenes in the crowd as the home nation progressed to the quarter-finals.
Mali lay in wait next, and Ivory Coast made things difficult for themselves once again.
Their goalkeeper Yahia Fofana had to make a first-half penalty save to keep his side level, and then defender Odilon Kossounou was sent off shortly before the break.
When Dorgeles Nene put Mali ahead with 20 minutes to go, Ivory Coast looked to be heading out, but Brighton’s Simon Adingra forced extra time with a last-gasp equaliser.
Still a man down, Ivory Coast held firm during the extra period with Haller doing his best to hold the ball up to relieve the pressure, and they got their reward when Oumar Diakite flicked home a dramatic winner in the 122nd minute.
Onto the semi-finals, and Haller was finally fit enough to start against DR Congo.
Ivory Coast have shown their fighting spirit in the knockout stages, securing a dramatic quarter-final win against Mali despite playing most of the game with 10 men
Haller volleyed home their winner against DR Congo on Wednesday’s semi-final, and he is now just one win away from AFCON glory on home soil to cap an incredible journey back to the top
In a game full of tension and few clear-cut opportunities, Haller produced the one moment of quality needed by volleying home Max Gradel’s cross to seal his side’s spot in the final.
There cannot have been a more popular goalscorer in the tournament given what Haller has been through.
And now he has the chance to win a major trophy with his country. It would only be fitting for Haller to be the difference-maker in Sunday’s showpiece event.
Haller has been on an incredible journey back to the top over the past 18 months that will have inspired countless people from around the world, and it could be about to get even better.