Tunisia Football Team Forge Unbreakable Bond

Tunisia Football Team Forge Unbreakable Bond
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Published November 30th, 2017 - 14:56 GMT via SyndiGate.info

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Tunisia national football team
Tunisia national football team

If you had told Tunisia’s fans two years ago that they would make it to the 2018 World Cup, even the most optimistic may have raised an eyebrow. A round qualifier against Mauritania was only decided in the 84th minute of the second leg, Saad Bguir’s goal putting the minnows, ranked 104th by FIFA, to the sword. It was certainly indicative of the tumultuous campaign ahead.

That tie was in the early throes of Henryk Kasperczak’s second spell as Tunisia coach but, like the first, it would end with an acrimonious split. Kasperczak guided the Eagles of Carthage to the 1998 World Cup before infamously being sacked mid-tournament after losing group games against England and Colombia.

That should have been a warning but the Polish boss, clearly a glutton for punishment, returned in 2015. This April he was sacked for a second time. The Tunisian Football Federation cited lack of progress, bemusingly describing it as “a unilateral separation.” From the outside it appeared a little unfortunate given Tunisia were leading their World Cup qualifying group, though an African Nations Cup quarter-final defeat to Burkina Faso certainly did not help his cause.

It was Nabil Maaloul who swooped to the Eagles’ aid, taking up the role — like Kasperczak — for the second time. Maaloul’s first tenure lasted just seven months up to September 2013 and, having failed to take Tunisia to the 2014 World Cup, he was determined to make amends.

Still hugely respected in his homeland after winning back-to-back league titles and a CAF Champions League crown with Esperance, the coach immediately won over any potential doubters with a 1-0 victory over North African rivals Egypt in AFCON qualifying in June.

It was an impressive show of unity, and indeed one of Maaloul’s key qualities has been his ability to foster a togetherness in the squad that many thought impossible.

“He has managed to create a bond between players,” Tunisian journalist Souhail Khirma tells Arab News. “Despite being rivals in the local championship, he unites them as brothers fighting for the Tunisian banner. He often refers to the players as his ‘own children’ and it is clear they share a special relationship.”

That unity was notable in back-to-back World Cup qualifiers as Maaloul’s side fought back from 2-0 down away to group rivals DR Congo to snatch a 2-2 draw. The point was vital, eventually proving to be the difference between the nations.

The following match saw a 1-0 half-time deficit against Guinea transformed into a 4-1 rout; it was unquestionably Tunisia’s best display of the campaign.

A spot in Russia was confirmed with a nervous 0-0 draw at home to neighbors Libya but it mattered little to the Tunisian fans, who could celebrate a first World Cup appearance since 2006.

No members of that squad are still involved with the national team but the new generation still has an experienced spine. Ali Maaloul has been a defensive stalwart, enjoying a fine 2017 with both Tunisia and club side Al Ahly, while Youssef Msakni — the most capped outfield player of this group — remains a talismanic presence. And while Esperance striker Taha Yassine Khnissi has yet to fully replicate his impressive club form at international level, big things are expected of the Tunisian league’s top scorer.

There is plenty of quality in this Tunisia squad but it could well be the influence of father figure Maaloul that pushes the current crop to shine in Russia. Registering a victory should be the primary aim given Tunisia have failed to do so in the 11 games since their first ever World Cup match, a 3-1 win against Mexico in 1978. Three winless tournaments have come and gone since but Maaloul has inspired a belief that things will be different this time for the Eagles of Carthage.

Copyright: Arab News © 2017 All rights reserved.

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