Ex-Leeds United man wins AFCON with Ivory Coast as history made against Nigeria

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One former Leeds United man featured as Ivory Coast were crowned AFCON winners for a third time

Former Leeds United winger Max Gradel featured for Ivory Coast at the age of 36 as the AFCON hosts clinched their third continental crown with a 2-1 win over Nigeria on Sunday night.

The 36-year-old started the game before being replaced after 70 minutes as his side overcame William Troost-Ekong's first-half opener thanks to second-half goals from Franck Kessie and Sebastian Haller. After featuring just once in the group phase for the hosts, Gradel started in every knockout game and captained the side in their 1-0 semi-final over DR Congo, in which he provided the assist for Haller's winning goal. Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked as Ivory Coast boss after the group phase as they lost 4-0 against Equatorial Guinea to leave their knockout hopes hanging by a thread.

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Emerse Fae, who replaced Gasset, clearly put his trust in Gradel after Ivory Coast edged into the knockout phases as one of the best third-placed teams. The 2-1 win over Nigeria was the first time Ivory Coast had scored in an AFCON final, with their triumphs in 1992 and 2015 coming via penalty shootouts after two 0-0 draws with Ghana in both tournaments. Gradel also played a part in the 2015 triumph.

Gradel played for Leeds between 2009 and 2011, having initially joined the club on loan from Leicester City in 2009 when he helped the Whites clinch promotion to the Championship. He was sent off in the final game of the season against Bristol Rovers and had to be taken off the pitch by security as he was incensed by the red card decision which came after he knocked Rovers player Daniel Jones to the ground. Leeds won the game 2-1 to secure automatic promotion.

He had signed a permanent deal at Leeds in January 2010 but was signed by French club Saint-Étienne in August 2011. He currently plays for top flight Turkish side Gaziantep. He made a total of 84 appearances for Leeds, scoring 25 goals and providing 13 assists.

Gradel was named Leeds Player of the Year for the 2010-11 season, as well as being named player of the year by the YEP. Speaking to the Athletic about those awards, he said in 2020: “Those trophies matter to me. I won’t ever lose them. In that season, I wanted people to see what I could do. I wanted to show that I was better than someone who gets sent off in a promotion game. It was an amazing year. I was totally in love with football and the club. Totally in love with everything.”

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