Tunisia’s national team seems to have rubbed neutral’s up the wrong way for longer than most people care to remember. A gritty playing style, coupled with an unmemorable set of tournament appearances, appear to be the root causes of of their unpopularity.
But whatever your thoughts on them, the facts speak for themselves. This will be their fifth World Cup final appearance, which is more than any of their North African neighbours and only one behind Nigeria and two below Cameroon. They made it this time without a losing a game, overcoming the fancied DR Congo team in the process.
Injuries to star man Youssef Msakni and main striker Taha Yassine ‘The Sniper’ Khenissi have rocked the team’s preparation for the tournament. Msakni was a bona-fide match-winner, his hat-trick in Conakry where Tunisia downed Guinea 4-1 during qualification was a one-man show. And his late assist for Anice Badri away to DR Congo for the equaliser was the moment when qualification became highly probable.
The creativity and goalscoring burdens are expected to shift to the impish Naim Sliti and Wahbi Khazri, who have both enjoyed productive club seasons in France; Khazri doing so whilst playing in the position of a False Nine. A wonderfully balanced midfield is also grounds for optimism, with Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, Ferjani Sassi and Sliti all technically accomplished and, at their best, able to play football that is efficient and easy on the eye.
Tunisia have had a very good pre-World Cup warm up period, sealing it with a 1-0 loss to Spain where they gave them plenty to think about. The target for them is now to have an impact at this tournament. Their previous World Cup appearances, bar 1978, have not been memorable. The least they could is record their first win at the World Cup in 40 years.
Tunisia will line up in a 4-5-1 formation with much of the creativity expected to come down the wing. There could be some essentially last-minute changes in defence after some new faces impressed during the warm-up friendlies. Goalkeeper Mouez Hassen could start in goal instead of the experienced Aymen Mathlouthi, and Dylan Bronn ahead of Hamdi Nagguez at right back.
The midfield, which includes Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, can shirk physical battles but is capable of keeping the ball well to alleviate pressure, as they showed against Spain. Left back Ali Maaloul and lanky winger Fakhredine Ben Youssef expected to provide width on either wing, Maaloul is particularly instrumental.
Collective strength – Tunisia are more than the sum of its parts. Club connections can be crucial for cohesive football. Many of the players in the team have played together at club level at one point or another for Tunisia’s major teams – Esperance, Club Africain, Etoile du Sahel and CS Sfaxien – so they do know each other well. With that bond also comes an understated mental strength which they have shown when the chips are down, like the 2-2 draw to DR Congo in Kinshasa.
The lack of goals – It’s been a while since Tunisia were all-firing in front of goal. This problem has been exacerbated by injuries to Msakni and Khenissi. This means that they can play well, as they did against Spain, and not win games as they don’t have the players to convert chances. The squad lacks a proven, out-and-out goalscorer.
Ali Maaloul – The left back is Mr Consistency for Tunisia snd Al Ahly, Africa’s most successful club. Whatever the game, whatever the stage, he can always be trusted to stand up and be counted. His busy raids down the left wing make him a key attacking weapon.
The Hipster’s Choice
Ferjani Sassi – Nicknamed ‘Arab Pirlo’ after donning the black-and-white colours of CS Sfaxien, the midfielder doesn’t have the poise to run games on his own, but what he does bring to the table is some swagger, in the form of very neat footwork, in what is a very functional team.
Nabil Maaloul – Enjoyed a stellar playing career with Esperance in the 1980s and 1990s, before steering them to a historic treble as manager in 2011. There are no doubts that Maaloul is the best Tunisian coach around. Maaloul is tactically pragmatic and has built a good reputation as a TV pundit before taking the Tunisia national team job for his second spell.
The Fans’ View
The team we have this year plays differently. We spent years playing defensive and boring football, that the current team makes us excited about the tournament in a way. Hundreds of Tunisians in Montreal are hoping to have a sensational World Cup so we can put our country on the map again in a very diverse city.
–Dali Chaabane in Montreal, Canada
Group stage exit. No Msakni, no party. With him in the team they would have had the unpredictability to win games. Without him it’s going to be a tall order.