Sébastian Haller puts the boot into cancer, now chasing Afcon glory after six-month battle with the disease
After helping Borussia Dortmund finish second in the Bundesliga, Sébastien Haller will be integral for Ivory Coast in its Afcon onslaught.
‘You can get cancer. But you can also beat it. That’s what I’ve learnt in the past six months.”
These were the words of Ivorian-French soccer player Sébastien Haller after his recovery from a six-month-long battle with testicular cancer, which culminated in January 2023.
Until that point in his life, Haller had encountered various challenges, including an underwhelming stint with English Premier League side West Ham United, where he only netted 14 times in 54 matches between 2019 and 2021.
The news he received in July 2022, just weeks after signing for his current club Borussia Dortmund, dwarfed whatever feelings were still bouncing about in his mind from that “flop” period in England.
“The first day I didn’t know it was cancer. They just said ‘tumour’. But I am not medical. I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I just asked the doctor, is it cancer? He said yes. So, I said, well just say it.
“Of course, you realise it is something really serious that is happening, that a lot of things can change. But the urologist helped me not to be scared. He said I could heal well,” Haller told BBC Sport after his recovery.
The word cancer can send shivers down the spine. Haller had fought many opponents during his days of practising judo as a young boy. Later in life, his 1.9m frame has towered over and conquered many defenders in his football career. Still, when he heard his diagnosis, he had to fight with everything in him not to capitulate.
His two young children still needed him. His wife still needed the 29-year-old. He had to dig deeper than he had done before in his whole life for this battle. His mind had to be in the right place.
In an incredible twist of fate, Haller scored his first Dortmund goal on 4 February, which is World Cancer Day.
“If I was alone, or just with my wife, probably it would [have been] different. But as soon as you have kids, you don’t have time to think bad because they need you. No matter what has happened, you need to show them everything is fine,” Haller said.
A few chemotherapy sessions and two surgeries later, and with the support of his family, friends and his new club Dortmund, Haller was victorious in his bout with the deadly disease.
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By December 2022 he was ready to return to training. A month later, he finally made his Dortmund debut. However, it was not his first time playing in the German Bundesliga, having also played for Eintracht Frankfurt.
In an incredible twist of fate, Haller scored his first Dortmund goal on 4 February, which is World Cancer Day – a day to raise awareness about the disease.
That strike would be one of the nine that he eventually scored over 19 league games in the 2022/23 season, along with five assists.
He underwent two operations, had to go through four stages of chemotherapy. During this whole time, he showed such incredible strength.
His contribution was imperative as Die Schwarzgelben (the black and yellows), as Dortmund is affectionately known, put on a spirited fight for the league title, before eventually losing it on goal difference to perennial German champions Bayern Munich, after both sides ended the season on 71 points.
“His personal story is the fairy tale of last season, perhaps the biggest fairy tale in all of European club football,’’ Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke told the club’s media department.
“He underwent two operations, had to go through four stages of chemotherapy. During this whole time, he showed such incredible strength, which even helped to lift other people around him up. After just six months he was back out on the pitch, giving it his all. What incredible strength the guy has. It’s truly impressive.”
Haller was born in Ris-Orangis, a suburb about 20km from Paris, and his French father and Ivorian mother pushed him towards the Japanese martial art of judo.
However, Haller’s first love was always football, so that’s what he focused most of his powers on. Because of his imposing physical figure, which meant he was already towering over his peers, he usually found himself having to be a goalkeeper during neighbourhood kickabouts.
When he did play infield, he preferred to play up front and scored tons of goals. By 2011, Haller had signed his first professional contract, as he was snapped up by French outfit Auxerre.
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He spent four years with this club, further honing his goal-scoring prowess, before moving to the Dutch Eredivisie to join Utrecht. This move took his game to the next level, with now Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag helping to mould Haller into a menace in front of goal.
The Eiffel Tower-esque forward found the back of the net 51 times in 98 games for the Dutch club. His scoring exploits engineered his first move to Germany with Frankfurt in 2017.
He continued to find the back of the net regularly in the Bundesliga, with many feeling it was just a matter of time before he moved to the English Premier League.
Then came the move to West Ham, before the start of the 2019/20 season. It began well enough for Haller, who scored three goals in his first three games.
He would only add four more goals to that tally, though, despite playing in 32 league games during his debut campaign.
“A football team is like a puzzle. The pieces have to fit together. At West Ham United, it was not quite right for me. I was not the right part. No matter what I tried, it didn’t work,” Haller said.
If Ivory Coast have any hopes of winning a third Africa Cup of Nations title, and on home soil, then Haller will be an integral part of that onslaught.
Before moving to Dortmund, the striker regained his confidence by returning to the Dutch Eredivisie, this time in the white and red strip of Ajax Amsterdam.
Haller was definitely the right puzzle piece for Ajax. He helped them to win the Eredivisie and was also the top scorer for the 2021/22 season – 21 goals in 31 matches.
He shone just as brightly during that season’s Uefa Champions League campaign. His total of 11 goals in the competition placed him third in the scoring charts, behind Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski, despite Ajax being eliminated by Benfica in the last 16.
He also matched Cristiano Ronaldo’s record of being the only player to score in every group game for their team in a single campaign.
At club level, the 2023/24 season has been far from ideal for Haller. He is yet to score any league goals and has largely played second fiddle to Niclas Füllkrug.
However, if Ivory Coast have any hopes of winning a third Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) title, and on home soil, then Haller will be an integral part of that onslaught.
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It’s Haller’s second Afcon since he featured in the 2021 showpiece hosted by Cameroon. He and his compatriots were eventually vanquished by finalists Egypt, on penalties, in the round of 16.
This tournament is an opportunity for Ivory Coast to redeem themselves, backed by their home support. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.