On the back of their glorious – and gruelling – triumph in this year’s CAF Champions League, which was followed by an intensive preparatory period and a lengthy journey to Japan, Esperance were left with a bitter pill to swallow at the FIFA Club World Cup 2011. For the ambitious African champions, a 2-1 quarter-final loss to Qatar’s Al-Sadd was most certainly not in the script.

However, amid their palpable disappointment in defeat, the African champions did make a positive impact in the shape of the sumptuous skills of winger Youssef Msakni. In the first 30 minutes of 11 December’s clash in particular, when the Tunisian outfit were in control of the game, the No28 was behind several moves that created havoc in the Al-Sadd backline.

“He’s a player who has the skill to really tip the balance of a game. It was mainly due to him that they caused us problems early on,” said Al-Sadd coach Jorge Fossati, when asked by FIFA.com about the 21-year-old. “And, to tell you the truth, we weren’t surprised by that. We’d watched a lot of Esperance matches and we knew how good Msakni was.”

I try to model my game on the man who plays the best football around: [Lionel] Messi.

Youssef Msakni

Msakni’s gifts have been gaining greater visibility outside of Tunisia, ever since he burst onto the international scene with three goals in four games in his country’s run to the Round of 16 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. And though he is now a key player for his club, as well as breaking into the senior national team, the youngster clearly has not let his success go to his head.

“Well, if they say that I’m a skilful player... That’s very nice of them,” said Msakni humbly, when chatting to FIFA.com. “I came to Japan to try and help my team succeed: that’s what really mattered. But, as that wasn’t possible, it’s some consolation to hear people praising my style of play. That’s because I try to model my game on the man who plays the best football around: [Lionel] Messi,” added the shy starlet.   

Endowed with fine dribbling skills and fast gaining celebrity status back home, Msakni would appear to be well on the way to his dual ambitions of playing in European football and helping Tunisia qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “He’s out of this world,” said fellow Esperance forward Yannick Ndjeng. “Truth be told, he’s got the potential to become the kind of star Tunisia has never seen before.”

Weighty words, perhaps, but on the basis of his electric – if ultimately fruitless – display on Sunday in Toyota, who is to say that Msakni cannot achieve just that?