Far away from the luxurious resorts which kiss Tunisia’s Mediterranean shore, the humble youth of Tabarka gather in the city centre on a hot summer night. The youngest children run, laugh, then cry. Elder gentlemen stroll idly, wrestling with relevant issues of the day. Somewhere in the distance a Bob Marley cassette lazily rolled on. But in the middle of the city lay a weathered tennis court. In it, thirty or so of the city’s finest footballers had assembled for a nightly match.I had previously attended European, African and American football matches of the highest calibre, but I am yet to witness better football then on that warm night in Tabarka. It would be useless extolling the skill, technique, or tempo of the match, for words would not do it justice. But it was clear that football ran through the very veins of the Tunisian people. Watching the Tunisian national team is similar to watching a pick-up match in Tabarka. One is to see clever interplay, flashy skill, close control and masterful technique. One would also most probably see porous defending, shambolic keeping and tactical indiscipline. Notwithstanding their defensive woes, Tunisia remain highly entertaining. One would do well to follow the Carthage Eagles during their Cup of Nations campaign.
Disappointing 2012Tunisia’s trip to Gabon/Equatorial Guinea was quite predictable. The North Africans began well, decisively defeating their Maghreb rivals Morocco. Tunisia then skipped past decrepit Niger and went on to face hosts Gabon. That final group match was quintessentially Tunisian. In the opening 20 minutes, the Gabonese hosts could barely hold the ball. The Carthage Eagles were all over their opponents, prompting the enthusiastic Arabic commentator to make an ambitious, and entirely predictable Barca comparison. But Didier Ovono sealed all roads to the Gabonese goal which led to the inevitable. In the 61st minute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found space and fired in a tame shot at keeper Rami Jeridi who somehow let the ball lazily bounce over his feet. Tunisia lost first place and went on to face Ghana where yet another goalkeeping blunder forced a deflating exit in the quarter-finals.
Coach: Sami Trabelsi
A household name in Tunisian football, the former defender accumulated an impressive 52 caps for the North African outfit. To qualify for South Africa, Trabelsi narrowly led his men past tricky Sierra Leone, advancing on the away goals rule. Yet his biggest exploit is expanding the number of players he can operate with. Trabelsi successfully integrated the likes of Dhaouadi, Ben-Hatira and Harbaoui who all play big roles in the current squad.
Key man: Aymen Abdennour
With partner Karim Haggui no longer in the picture, Abdennour will have to carry the Tunisian defense on his own. Abdennour is a powerful centre-back who uses his pace and strength to shackle defenders. Arsenal and Werder Bremen are said to have scouted him recently.
One to watch: Youssef Msakni
2012 was Msakni’s breakthrough year on the international stage. The young attacking midfielder was particularly impressive in the African Cup of Nations. He can play on either wing, or in the centre of the pitch. He fits the typical Tunisian profile; he has a great bag of tricks and is always looking to attack. His potential drew interest from the biggest of European clubs, but he, somewhat disappointingly, decided to pledge his future to Lekhwiya SC in Qatar. This tournament will be his last chance to impress on the continent before his Asian adventure begins. Count on him to deliver.