The Eagles of Carthage will be playing for more than just pride when they meet Panama in Saransk on Thursday. Their hopes of the last 16 may be gone but they still have the chance to end a long barren spell.You have to go all the way back to Argentina and 1978 to find the last time Tunisia won a World Cup match. On that occasion they beat Mexico 3-1 on their debut on international football’s biggest stage. It was a historic result as it made Tunisia the first ever African team to record a World Cup victory.
Three finals appearances (the last coming in 2006) and 13 World Cup matches have passed since then, and the wait for a win goes on. Tunisia have played two, lost two so far at this tournament: A narrow 2-1 defeat against England, when Harry Kane popped up with a stoppage time winner, was followed by a 5-2 thrashing by Belgium.
At least on paper, the easiest is still to come. Thursday’s encounter with Panama – ranked 24 places below Tunisia in the FIFA list – represents the best chance for Eagles of Carthage to put 40 years of World Cup misery behind them. However, sometimes it can be hard for players get out of a losing mentality.
“I tried to boost their spirits but this was difficult,” said coach Nabil Maaloul ahead of the game, which pits the two already-eliminated teams in Group G against each other. “Some of my players have not overcome their last defeat. All are playing for the first time in the World Cup and they want to have a positive result for this to be a great memory.”
Second time lucky
Maaloul is enjoying his second spell as national team coach after a brief spell in charge in 2013. His latest bite at the cherry came when the veteran Pole Henryk Kasperczak was sacked after a poor Africa Cup of Nations campaign. The 55-year-old immediately set about improving performances, guiding Tunisia through African World Cup qualifying unbeaten.
He has instilled an attacking mindset into his young team, which was evident in Tunisia’s last outing against Belgium. Several times in the match they unsettled the Belgian defense, with 15 shots on goal telling its own story against a vastly superior opponent. To be sure, Belgium deserved to win, but Maaloul’s side put up an impressive fight.
“The coach is doing a good job, it’s important to underline that,” forward and captain Wahbi Khazri told DW. “He’s a respectful man who knows football well. We can see the progress we’ve made in the last two matches. We have to admit our opponents are playing at a high level. Now we’re looking to end the World Cup on a good note against Panama.”
Khazri (pictured, top) has shouldered much of his team’s hopes at this tournament, stepping up as the country’s talisman in place of the injured Youssef Msakni. Malooul previously likened losing Msakni to Argentina being without Lionel Messi.
For Khazri, it has been something of a tumultuous journey to get to this World Cup. Having excelled in the France’s Ligue 1 for Bordeaux, his career floundered following to a move to then-English Premier League side Sunderland in 2016.
However, while the Black Cats have suffered two straight relegations, Khazri’s fortunes have gone in the opposite direction. Shipped out on loan back to France with Rennes, the 27-year-old arrived in Russia on the back of a season in which he scored 9 goals in 24 games.
And the forward, a set-piece specialist, showed that never-say-die attitude against Belgium. He was rewarded for his perseverance with a late consolation goal to go with an earlier assist from a freekick.
“I’m very happy with my performance,” Khazri said after the game. “I moved a lot and I tried to help my team more than [I did] against England. When I’m feeling well physically, I’m capable of doing good things.”
A team united
Nearly 75 percent of this Tunisia squad is formed of players based abroad, leading some to question the unity in the ranks. But both Khazri and centre-back Syam Ben Youssef rejected such suggestions when asked by DW.
“There’s no problem with that at all,” Ben Youssef said. “The problem was the match [against Belgium]. Unity has no relation to that.”
It is a view shared by the fans. Montasser Zaied, a 34-year-old IT specialist, says the team benefits from having a number of players in other leagues, although he would like to see stronger foundations put in place back home, as well.
“Maybe we have to improve our infrastructure in Tunisia,” he said. “We have to improve our national league also. But I think we have the same unity, the same spirit. Football’s just a game.”
Zaied’s friend, consultant Mehdi Dziri, agrees. He grew up in France but says Tunisia is in his heart. The 28-year-old feels proud of the country of his parents’ birth.
“We have a good generation [of players] in midfield,” he said. “I think in one or two generations it will be better. We have players from the Tunisian league – it’s not usual. Usually we only have players who play abroad. The Tunisian league will improve and the level of Tunisian players will get better.”
“We had many supporters here, we had fun and we showed that Tunisia is a great country,” Dziri added. “Now the good way to finish this tournament is to win against Panama.”