Zied Jaziri could not believe his luck. Tunisia’s left-back Jose Clayton had hit a tame cross-cum-shot into the Moroccan penalty area which the Atlas Lions’ goalkeeper Khalid Fouhami dived to stop. Fouhami fumbled though, and Jaziri pounced. The No5 slotted the ball into the gaping net and, overcome with emotion, tore off his shirt and sprinted towards the jubilant Tunisian crowd, with the screams of joy from Rades reverberating around the entire nation.
This was Valentine’s Day 2004, the 52nd minute of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations final, and a significant moment in the history of Tunisian football.
The country had been impatiently waiting for their first continental triumph, which was almost 40 years in the making. In 1965, Tunisia had reached an Africa Cup of Nations final on home soil and an expectant crowd in Tunis thought they had their title, when Tahar Chaibi scored to put the host nation 2-1 up with just over 20 minutes remaining. It was not to be as Ghana, their opponents that day, took the game into extra time with an Osei Kofi equaliser before Frank Odoi clipped the deflated Carthage Eagles’ wings with a winner in extra time. In 1994, Tunisia hosted the competition for a second time, but failed to get beyond the group stages.
Roger Lemerre, Tunisia’s coach, was the man tasked with ending the host country’s Cup of Nations drought, and he had experience of dealing with an expectant home crowd. He was, after all, assistant manager for France during their 1998 FIFA World Cup™ victory. After winning UEFA EURO 2000 in sole charge, he left the France job in acrimonious circumstances after Les Bleus’ unsuccessful 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan.
Tunisia claim early advantage
The coach kept faith in Brazilian-born forward Francileudo Santos who, after scoring three goals in the opening two group games of the tournament, had failed to register since. It took him less than five minutes of the final to find the net. A Tunisian corner was half cleared to the edge of the Moroccan box and Mehdi Nafti looped the ball back into the area. Santos snuck in unnoticed and leapt highest to nod past the diving Fouhami, who could do nothing about the opener.
Tunisia kept up the pressure after their early goal and should have gone further ahead in the opening half as Santos missed a simple chance, Adel Chadli fired over and Jaziri had an effort ruled out for offside.
Morocco took heart from the hosts’ profligacy and levelled things up to silence the Rades crowd. Abdelkrim Kissi poked the ball behind the previously stubborn Tunisian defence for Youssef Hadji to cut back superbly from the byline. Arriving in the box on cue was Youssef Mokhtari, who stooped to equalise with a thumping diving header. Tunisia were stunned and the crowd could have been forgiven for thinking the Moroccans, whose young forward line had impressed during the tournament, would press on for a repeat of the 1965 heartache.
Their worst fears were allayed when Clayton played a one-two with Santos on the edge of the Moroccan box at the start of the second period and fired across goal. Jaziri finished after Fouhami’s error and the near-60,000 crowd went into a state of delirium – swallowing up the goalscorer who sprinted into the baying crowd.
"I would like to say thanks to all my players," Lemerre told The Guardian after the game. "They've respected my position since the start and now they've made history for themselves."
Tunisia goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel was one of the stars of the tournament, saving a Peter Odemwingie penalty in the semi-final shoot-out win over Nigeria. He was born less than a year after that 1965 final defeat and represented a generation of his countrymen who had grown up with the burden of failure at international level.
"This is the consecration of so much hard work," Boumnijel said after the final. "This group never flinched and now we have written something on the blank page that was Tunisia's roll of honour."