On July 30, 2022, Borussia Dortmund released a statement explaining that Sébastien Haller had withdrawn from the club’s pre-season training camp and had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Over the next six months, the entire football world held Haller in their hearts and minds, hoping that one day he would return in the black and yellow of BvB.
After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, it was announced in January 2023 that Haller could return to team training. It was a statement that everyone had been waiting for, and it subsequently highlighted the remarkable resilience and determination of Sébastien Haller.
However, while the war had been won, a series of battles now faced the Ivorian striker. Before he would be able to grace the Westfalenstadion, returning to match fitness was the first box that needed to be ticked.
Regardless, there was very little doubt that Haller’s return to the pitch would be prolonged much further after witnessing the true fight he had in him. After featuring for the first time during the winter break in a friendly against Werder Bremen, Haller would score a hat-trick against Basel as he began to show BvB what they had been missing.
Then on January 22, 2023, Haller returned to league action against Augsburg, receiving seismic applause as the entire Westfalenstaion came to their feet to welcome their returning hero. While a goal alluded him, just two weeks later, on World Cancer Day, Haller netted his first competitive goal in a Dortmund shirt in a 5-1 win over Freiburg.
For many, the story had been complete, but there was far more to come. As BvB turned on the style, a first league title appeared to be coming their way as Mainz came to town on the final day of the season.
However, Die Schwarzgelben would be left heartbroken as a 2-2 draw allowed Bayern Munich to lift their eleventh straight Meisterchale. For Haller, the pain would be far worse.
Having struggled to find form since his goal against Freiburg, a missed penalty against Mainz on the final day saw BvB fall short at the final hurdle. Despite all he had been through, he would reveal months later that it was a miss that affected him far more than his cancer diagnosis, leaving him unable to perform at the levels he had hoped.
Regardless, with Niclas Füllkrug signed to become Dortmund’s new number nine, a new battle had started for Haller; to win back his role as BvB’s number nine. However, zero goals in eleven league appearances left his future at the club in doubt as the 2024 African Cup of Nations arrived.
Despite his lack of form, Haller was still called up to the Ivory Coast squad, who were looking to send their nation jubilant with a home tournament success. Nevertheless, with Haller playing a bit part role, the Ivory Coast appeared to be crashing out at the group stage, finishing third and sacking their head coach midway through the tournament.
However, astoundingly, in spite of all this, they reached the knockout stages after earning enough points to qualify in third place. With hard-earned victories over Senegal and Mali, DR Congo were to be their semi-final opponents, and for Haller, a first start in the competition.
If there was one thing we had learned about Haller now, it is that he has never once given up, and while he had failed to find many minutes all tournament, this was the opportunity he had to take. Scoring the crucial goal with half an hour left to play, Haller sent his country to the AFCON final—something that seemed impossible just over a year ago.
Nevertheless, it would be Nigeria to stand in destiny’s way. A 1-0 defeat to the Super Eagles in the group stage had suggested that the story may not have the happy ending many were hoping for, but this was not just anybody’s story; it was Sébastien Haller’s.
With the game locked at 1-1 and heading towards extra time, the 29-year-old stepped up to send not just a nation but the entire football world into bedlam. As Brighton & Hove Albion’s Simon Adingra crossed the ball in, a glancing flick from the right boot of Haller saw the ball nestle into the far corner; queue jubilation.
19 months after his cancer diagnosis, Sébastien Haller has the world at his feet. A story that once threatened to end in heartache and despair has turned into one of triumph and success.
What a footballer, but most importantly, what a human being, Sébastien Haller!
GGFN | Will Shopland